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.”
When I pointed out that the United States seems to want instant results — instant democracy, just add water — he agreed, expressing skepticism that the United States has the patience to allow Pakistan and the people who live in the region to attack the problem systematically.
The vast majority of the people in Waziristan and other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan don’t support the Taliban and their ilk, he said. “They see them as an outside force. They see them as people who’ve come in and disrupted their society, destroyed their livelihoods, killed their sheep.” But thanks in part to America’s violent approach to the region, and to the attacks by the Pakistani army, support for the Taliban has increased significantly, even in the past year or so.
“I’d estimate that about 30 percent of the people in FATA support the Taliban,” he said. “That’s because they feel like they’re being attacked from all sides, by the United States, by Pakistan, by Afghanistan. To them it’s almost like they’re being ethnically cleansed. But only a year ago, the support for the Taliban was probably in the range of 15 percent or less.” In other words, support for the Islamists has likely doubled in a year.
Ali Khan says that the United States needs to ease up. “I don’t see it as a problem that the United States has to come in and fix. They need to step back, and let us deal with it.”
Al Qaeda, in particular, feeds off the US presence. “The anti-state actors [like Al Qaeda and the Taliban] are keen to keep the United States engaged and involved as long as possible, because the longer they are there, the more they are able to recruit people to their cause,” says Ali Khan.
But he doesn’t see the United States backing off anytime soon. “I don’t see that as something that’s going to happen,” he said.
Ali Khan focuses much of his energy on the youth of the area, who are the prime targets for Taliban recruitment. He says that the Pashtun diaspora, especially the three to four million Pakistani Pashtuns who live in the Arabian Gulf countries, could be mobilized to persuade their friends and families and tribes to abandon Islamism. He suggests using radio and television and other media, along with tribal jirgas, in an all-out effort to counter Taliban and Al Qaeda propaganda.
“Unfortunately,” Ali Khan told me, “the Taliban has great appeal because the people are not being presented with a choice. There appears to be no alternative.”
“You can even engage with elements of these extremist movements,” he said. “We’re assuming that all of them are the enemy. But there are many of them in the middle. So even from within, you can take a lot of people with you.”
That’s all very sensible. But it’s far more likely that the United States will make things a lot worse before they get better, in part because there is such an abysmal lack of understanding of the social and economic conditions in FATA (and in Afghanistan) on the part of US officials. By squeezing Pakistan to escalate its war against its own people, by firing missiles into FATA from the sky, we’re creating enemies by the hundreds. And if President Obama eventually decides to escalate the war in Afghanistan along the same lines, by doubling US forces there, the size and strength of our enemies will grow astronomically.