One year after military operation in South Waziristan, we are nowhere near the desired peace, the militancy is still raging, the situation in adjoining tribal agencies have deteriorated, and the writ of government has nearly collapsed, fostering lawlessness, militancy and criminal activity. Among all this, there is a talk of another military operation, this time in North Waziristan, presuming that use of blunt force may help win peace in the tribal area that we have lost, owing to our 60 years of mismanagement and negligence.
To wrest Fata back from the forces of chaos, we need to employ different instruments of statecraft, aimed at winning tribal support, strengthening its authority, and encouraging tribesmen to fight militants and clean their backyard. In this regard, we can learn from British experience, which spent decades dealing with tribes, learning through trial and error, devising a system that won tribal support, and brought peace to the frontier.
The former British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, offers a valuable insight into the principles governing British conduct in the tribal area. In his book, The Story of Malakand Field Force, he concludes that a militaristic policy against the tribes would be futile and forbiddingly expensive, favouring a more subtle approach, consisting of a “system of gradual advance, of political manoeuvring among the tribes, of subsidies and small expeditions.”
The British learned this lesson the hard way! After 1870, they undertook numerous military expeditions against the frontier tribes. But realised that tribes are formidable foes and cannot be cowered, dominated or subjugated, as Indian author K.C. Praval stated: "The frontier tribesman was unbeatable as a guerrilla, trained as he was in the rugged, strife-torn mountains of his native land. He was bold, ruthless and wily. It was seldom that he came out to fight in the open, relying mostly on ambush and snipping to wear down his adversary. "
In the wake of tribal uprisings of 1897-98, then Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, established the frontier's administrative boundary along the stetted districts, west of which was tribal hinterland, divided into five agencies (the sixth was later added in 1947), administered indirectly by political agents through tribal maliks and jirgas, backed by well trained and resourceful militias responsible for keeping vital installation secure, and deterring potential raiders.
Sir Olaf Caroe, a distinguished British civil servant, who also served as Governor of NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), has this to say about the policy of indirect rule: “If you want to get anything done in dealings with tribes, work through the tribal organisation; let the tribal leaders produce the goods in their own way.” In return for their cooperation, leaders and their tribes were rewarded in the form of alimony, developmental projects and jobs in levies.
Thus, a deal was struck between Pathan tribes and British administrators. Tribes would act as a buffer between Czarist Russia and British India, refraining from raids on settled areas, while government would compensate them remuneratively. Each party was aware of its side of the bargain, more or less stuck to it, knowing very well, that any transgression would come at a very high price, in terms of lives and resources.
Regretfully, after independence, instead of bringing the tribal area into a developmental fold, we used them as chess pieces on the geopolitical chessboard; with the result that today the tribal area has become a burning sore, rife with militancy and extremism. To address this, in the short-term, we should strengthen the system of indirect administration in Fata, bringing maliks to the forefront and offering them the necessary support and protection. Instead of resorting to military operation, we should strengthen the FC, enhance its manpower by recruiting local tribal youth and equipping them with latest weapons, so that it can effectively engage and root out militant elements.
In the long-term, we should develop tribal region, improving local infrastructure, gradually replacing the FC with regular police force, encourage commercial activity, open string of schools and colleges, improve health care facilities, and offer them all the amenities that accompanies the settled life.
A major military operation in North Waziristan, with an aim to root out terrorists, will be uncalled for, counterproductive and unsustainable. The fluid nature of militancy and the risk of collateral damage may limit the effectiveness of such an endeavour, as evident in South Waziristan. Instead, pockets of militants may be exterminated through small surgical strikes, filling the vacuum left by them through enforced tribal authority, supported by tribal levies, permanently marginalising and eradicating militants. If we fail to get the tribes onboard, and try to solve the problem of militancy through the indiscriminate use of force, we may soon find ourselves trapped in a quagmire, from which we may only be able to extricate ourselves at huge personal and financial cost.
The writer is a freelance columnist and has worked as a broadcast journalist.