Yesterday, at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, a bright-eyed young Pakistani man, dressed in a brown cap and brown robe, and sporting long stringy hair and a beard, pointed the way out of the Afghan-Pakistan quagmire.
If only Washington were listening.
The speaker was Faisal Ali Khan, founder of the Foundation for Integrated Development, who lives in Dera Ismail Khan, a province of Pakistan that borders on Waziristan. It’s Waziristan, north and south, that is generally considered to be the heartland of Taliban-inspired Islamic extremism, and a key base for as many as 14 separate Islamist groups that operate in Pakistan and whose activities often spill over into neighboring Afghanistan. The foundation, operating entirely independently, is trying to create and sustain development projects and social change programs in South Waziristan.
In his presentation, Ali Khan patiently explained the enormous difficulties in trying to counter the appeal of the Taliban and Al Qaeda types in this extremely poor, war-torn region, where hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees crowd into camps, where US Predator attacks rain down missiles from the sky, where heavy-handed Pakistani army actions make it seem like Pakistan is at war with its own people. Among other things, in Waziristan — and also in Pakistan’s settled areas, such as the Swat Valley — the Taliban layers its reactionary ideology on top of seething resentments and “channels social revolutionary feelings” among desperately poor tribes to build support, says Ali Khan.
Little of this registers on US officials, not to mention among counterinsurgency specialists. Even the best-intentioned development experts, often working with organizations such as US AID, go charging into Waziristan in heavily armed convoys, riding through villages in brand new armored SUVs — if they go at all — and like typical Ugly Americans, try to bring enlightenment to the masses. Not surprisingly, says Ali Khan, they’re not well received.
“When we go into South Waziristan, which we do often, we travel in old cars. We bring a couple of fattened sheep in the back of our pickup trucks, because when people see that they realize we are there for a jirga [tribal leadership gathering] or for a peace offering. We go in unarmed,” he said. “And we don’t make everyone sit around a table. We sit in a circle, and we listen.”
After his presentation, I interviewed Ali Khan about his ideas for dealing with the extremists and their ideology.
“It’s not a a problem we can fix right away. We need to have a long-term approach,” he said. “We take an 80- to 100-year approach, which we think is realistic. It’s generational. You need to have very long-term goals in order to achieve short-term results, and within that framework we work in five-year blocks of time.”