Winning: Generosity Batters The Taliban

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November 15, 2009: The Pakistani Army offensive against the Taliban heartland in South Waziristan (near the Afghan border) has, in less than a month, led to about 500 deaths (90 percent of them Taliban). But the entire border region, called the tribal territories, have seen 4,200 deaths so far this year. Most (79 percent) of the dead were Taliban and other Islamic terrorists. Some 14 percent of the dead were civilians (mostly the victims of terrorist attacks) and the remaining seven percent were security personnel. That's an increase of 50 percent over 2008. In that year, violent deaths were up 70 percent from 2007. In 2005, there were only 285 deaths. But in the following year, the Taliban, and their al Qaeda allies, went on the offensive.

At first, the government tried to negotiate a peace deal. The government knew that most of the Pushtun tribesmen did not back the Taliban. But the Pushtuns don't much care for the government either. Most of the violence in the tribal territories is all about local disputes. "Tribal politics" is something most Westerns just can't take seriously, or even get their heads around. But consider that in the main combat zones of the war on terror (including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and many more), tribal politics cannot be ignored. U.S. appreciation, and exploitation, of tribal politics led to victory in Iraq. The same thing is happening in Afghanistan.

In many parts of the world, tribal organizations are the ones people trust the most. The national governments are often seen, often quite accurately, as a bunch of larcenous strangers who are only interested in stealing from you, or worse. For many countries, the national government (and their lackeys running provincial and country governments) have never done anything positive for most of its citizens. While the introduction of mass media (radio and TV) has created the illusion of nationhood, when you get right down to it, people look to their tribal leaders (usually synonymous with the "tribal elders") for help. This should not be surprising, as the tribes are based on long tradition, and family connections. Given a choice, who are you going to trust? A second cousin you've never seen before, or a government bureaucrat you've never seen before? This is how things work in Pakistan's tribal territories.

Those most dependent on tribal leadership tend to be the less educated, and more religious. Over the last century, there's been a constant migration of educated and ambitious tribal members away from the tribal territories. These folks usually end up in a nearby city, or overseas. They stay in touch, usually maintain a respectful attitude towards the tribal elders, and might even have need to use the tribal elders to settle some family matter. But the folks back home tend to remain uneducated, and very religious. Pakistan, and before that, the British, left the tribes alone. Before, and after, the founding of Pakistan in 1947, the Pushtun tribes were allowed to govern themselves. But gradually, the Pakistani government established itself in the cities and towns. That has been threatened by the Taliban uprising, which wants to take control of the urban areas.

Religious conservatism goes along with reliance on tribal ties. The tribe is not held together just by necessity, but also by faith, faith in family, and in a Greater Power. However, tribal elders tend to be more conservative, than religious. It's usually younger clerics who get into extremism, and their power will often rival that of the tribal elders. Sometimes this will lead to bloodshed, with tribal elders being killed and terrorized. This is a major theme in the Taliban violence, where younger, ambitious, tribesmen are using Islamic radicalism to grab power from the tribal elders.

Tribes can be destroyed, and this is one of the ways it happens. It's why there are some very strong ones, and some weak, dying actually, tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan . This generation gap is a major factor in the Pakistani violence, and the government has used knowledge of that, and how it works in each tribe, to get a handle on tribal unrest in what they call the "tribal territories." Unlike Afghanistan, most Pakistanis are non-tribal, and living in the lowlands of Sind and Punjab. Thus the Pushtun tribesmen are feared by most Pakistanis, if only because the tribal territories are semi-autonomous, and those tribes have been raiding and invading the lowland peoples for thousands of years.

In the Pakistan tribal territories, the Taliban have threatened to wage a long term guerilla war. But the government has some not-so-secret weapons. First, the government backs the traditional (tribal elders) tribal government, and these elders have guns and lots of armed followers. These elders are forming militias, with government support (money, air support, weapons) to fight the Taliban militias. This makes it difficult for the Taliban to succeed with guerilla war. The government has lots of other assets. In addition to cash (which, as saying goes, won't buy a Pushtun, but will rent them for a while), the government also offers jobs, especially ones with the army. Then there is medical care, education (in boarding schools and universities) and promotions for Pushtuns in the military. The armed forces have long been a way for Pushtuns to improve their living standards and social position. Thus while the Taliban offers martyrdom, and a shot at some loot (a big deal in Pushtun culture), the government offers much more.

 

 


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