Why the Taliban Ceasefire Won’t Matter

by Joshua Foust on 5/6/2008

wazirimordorThere is a great deal of western unease about the potential cease-fire between some Taliban and tribal militant groups in the NWFP and FATA of Pakistan and the new civilian government. Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of Tehrik-i Taliban and primary suspect in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and sworn enemy of this month’s U.S. friend-of-convenience Maulvi Nazir, has registered interest in a cease-fire in Waziristan.

This is a major step, and indicative of the approach valued by the new civilian government: reconciliation, not confrontation. The usual suspects, namely the U.S., are all a-jitter about the prospect of a peace deal with the militants there. But there really is no reason to feel such deep concern. These sorts of cease fire agreements have a long history in the FATA area, and there really is nothing fundamentally new about the situation. In other words, such deep concern is overblown, and stems more from historical naiveté than anything else.

Most western reporting from this part of the world, especially when herder by official U.S. government minders, does not distinguish very clearly between al Qaeda, other foreign militants like the mostly-defunct IMU, the many factions of Taliban groups (lead by Omar, Nazir, Behsud, Fazlullah, and so on), and simple village/tribal militants. They all fight for different reasons, under different commanders, and have different connections to the land, culture, and traditions of the local communities.

In this light, while al Qaeda is a very serious concern, it is important to understand why it has maintained such a strong presence in FATA. And it is important to distinguish between foreign militants—like AQ and the IMU—and local militants like Mehsud’s group. Foreign militants are fighting primarily for ideology, while all local groups, whether the banned Taliban groups or just angry villagers, have much more fundamental, and historical, reasons for fighting.

The Cease Fire

For well over one hundred years, the central government that establishes some measure of control over the Pashtun tribal areas—whether British or Pakistani—has existed in a form of semi-benign neglect. This has most commonly taken the form of a cyclical relationship best explained through a series of violence and truces between the center of government and the tribes along the Frontier.

In 1903, the British passed the Frontier Crimes Regulation. Its text isn’t online or even accessible outside a few university libraries, but reports of its effects are widespread. Recent stories about the expansion of Shari’a courts in Swat, Dir, Kohistan, and Chitral all note the similarities of a collective punishment regime to the FCR. The provision is seen as a “throwback” to the old British system of governance, in which an entire community could be held accountable for the actions of individual members.

Cease Fires Have a History

This pattern goes back at least to the drawing of the Durand Line in 1894. At the time, the British were sensitive about relations with the so-called Pathan Tribes over violence toward Hindus, theft, and the abduction of women. The Moguls and Sikhs, who ruled the area before the British had expanded that far west, had a generally “hands off” philosophy: so long as the tribes paid their taxes and didn’t openly rebel, they allowed local governance. Charles Chenevix Trench, an old-school but renowned British historian who once served in the Indian Army, wrote the definitive history of the main security force in the NWFP, The Frontier Scouts. From the very beginning, explains Philip Mason in the introduction, the British found a hands-off approach controversial:

John Lawrence, the supreme advocate of the Close Border, ordered his Deputy Commissioners to keep out of tribal affairs and never to cross the administrative line [between British India and what came to be known as the Northwest Frontier Province] except to inflict punishment for a raid into administered territory. When punishment had been inflicted, British forces would retire. This, said his critics, meant that the tribesmen never saw the representative of the British Government unless he came to burn and kill; it was a policy of ‘Butcher and Bolt,’ and could not possibly lead to anything but growing hostility. In Baluchistan, further south, Robert Sandeman had found it possible to establish some degree of control through tribal leaders. But the Mahsuds and Wazirs are quite different from the Baluchi tribes, replied those expert in the ways of the Pathans; they have no tribal leaders in that sense and do no man’s bidding.

Note that Baitullah Mehsud is of the Mahsud tribe. They have a long history of friction with any outside power. The British felt that because the Pashtun tribes are difficult to rule and practically impossible to conquer, approaches useful in more hierarchal tribal societies would not apply. The compromise solution to the two sides of the argument—distance creates hostility, but distance is practical—was the creation of the Northwest Frontier Province, which was mostly Pashtun but ruled by British India, and the FATA, where all the current problematic militancy thrives. These were are have remained the areas where the greatest amount of local autonomy from centralized rule existed.

The way this relationship played out over the next hundred years or so helps explain recent events, but not fully. “Neither the Amir of Afghanistan, nor the Sikhs,” Mason explains, “nor the British wanted more than spheres of influence in the mountains [of FATA].” Rather, the best way of keeping the Frontier calm was through economic and educational incentives to reduce the appeal of raids into lower, more settled areas. The Close Border strategy, described above, was the primary method the British used in dealing with unruly Pashtun militants.

The Frontier Crimes Regulation, which was first drafted in 1872 but made law in 1903, enshrined the role of Sharia in judicial settlements in FATA. It also, according to some local analysts, kept the NWFP hostages to the Great Game, “supposed to act as the ‘prickly hedge,’ against a Russian advance towards India.”

In the decades since the signing of the Treaty of Gandamak in 1893, and the FCR in 1903, the tribal belt’s relationship with the central authority in British India and later Pakistan followed a predictable pattern: the central power would attempt to exert control and fail, a cease fire or understanding with local power brokers would be reached, and then breached, and then the entire area will be collectively punished for breaking the initial cease fire. Then another truce or peace treaty would be drafted, and the entire cycle would repeat.

This pattern even extended to the short-lived Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, when King Amanullah capitalized on the growing weakness of British rule along the frontier and marched as far as the city of Thal in Parachinar. During this war, many Pashtuns in the Frontier Scouts deserted to fight alongside the Afghans—similar to more recent stories of the Pakistani Army laying down its weapons during sweeps in FATA. Eventually a settlement was reached at the Treaty of Rawalpindi that was meant to calm down cross-border actions.

In 1936, the Tori Khel rebellion, led by a charismatic Islamic fundamentalist leader named Hajji Mirza Ali Khan, or the Faqir of Ipi, threw Waziristan into violence. After a few months of sustained fighting, the Tori Khel were brought to a peace jirga, where the principle of semi-benign neglect was more or less affirmed by imposing a stiff fine on the entire tribe. Despite this, there remained a serious problem of cross-border tribal militancy from Khost province in Afghanistan—militants from the Tani, Zadran, and Mangal tribes continued to cross the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and launch attacks into British India. This postponed the fighting until well into 1939, and eventually was quelled through years of difficult mountainous fighting.

Sound familiar yet?

Though officially included in mainstream British Indian politics since 1932, the tribal areas maintained a fierce independence throughout the 1940s and 1950s. As Louis Dupree explains it, this independence was challenged through periodic raids that forced a major occupation-like British force to be maintained near Waziristan which would issue punitive measures in retaliation for particularly outrageous acts of theft, abduction, or murder. During Partition in the 1940s, there was a great deal of debate over whether to be part of Pakistan or maintain independence. This was partly backed by early Indian advocacy of “Pashtunistan” in the mid ‘40s, and the issue continued well into Afghanistan’s official opposition to Pakistan’s ascension into the UN. Cross-border antagonism became so great that Pakistan blockaded Afghanistan’s oil imports in 1950, forcing Afghanistan to seek Soviet economic support (and, not coincidentally, tacit support for “Pashtunistan”).

By the mid-1960’s, the Pakistani government had officially adopted the British policies toward the tribal areas: power and authority was channeled through, rather than over or around, the Maliks. This was a major shift in policy, as the “One Rule” legislation of 1955 created a single province for all of modern-day Pakistan, called “West Pakistan.” David Ditcher, in an excellent but hard to find study of the NWFP in what was then West Pakistan, explored the political dynamic in the 1960s in depth. Apart from occasional patrols and a few garrisons, the government of West Pakistan placed little pressure on the tribes themselves. The Political Agents who dealt with the jirgas, however, modified their relationships down to a purely advisory role rather than the arbitrary one under the British. This worked extremely well, and kept militancy down for several decades.

While tribal issues in NWFP were not a significant factor during the Soviet War (most of the tribes’ energy, according to Steve Coll, was spent trying to kill Soviets except for some fighting amongst the different warlord factions), the issue again rose to prominence in the 1990s. During this time, the Pakistan government actively encouraged militancy in many of the NWFP’s districts as a deliberate strategy to build up “fanatical” religious soldiers to fight India in disputed Kashmir. Ahmed Rashid documented how these zealot-tribals also took advantage of the relative lawlessness and anarchy in Afghanistan and increased their cross-border economic and military activities, often doing tours fighting both for the Taliban and in low-intensity conflicts in Kashmir. This continued until just after September 11, 2001.

Agreements in Fata Today

The biggest difference between the violence-accommodation cycle of the 19th and 20th centuries and today is its speed: the periods of both violence and “peace” are much shorter. Otherwise, the problems are essentially the same, whether charismatic Muslim zealots stirring up acts of terrorism against perceived outsiders, or periods of cross-border fighting between the tribes and the central government. Nevertheless, the relationships between the tribal elements and the central government have remained relatively unchanged since the 19th century.

Going back decades, concrete stories out of NWFP rarely have been forthcoming—the entire region exists in what Rosanne Klass called, “a smattering of romantic fact so closely mixed with romantic fiction that it would be difficult to disentangle the two.”

Some facts, however, are indisputable. Pakistani troops moved into the Khyber Agency in 2002, then swept south through both Waziristans. As the troops moved through South Waziristan, several tribes fought back against the Pakistani troops. Over the next year, after an attempt on the life of Pervez Musharraf, conditions within Waziristan had slowly devolved into an undeclared war —eerily paralleling the Tori Khel rebellion of seven decades before.

By early 2004 the fighting in Waziristan was concentrated in the village of Wana. After several days of intense fighting, the first peace accord was signed in South Waziristan in April. It was canceled when Nek Muhammed Wazir, the treaty’s FATA signatory, was killed in a U.S. missile attack. A second, identical deal was signed with Baitullah Mehsud in early 2005, and in late 2006 a final peace deal was signed to keep the peace North Waziristan.

The terms of this deal are important, for they indicate the tribal, and not necessarily Islamist, nature of the insurgency in FATA. In essence, it was a mutual cease-fire: the army would leave FATA alone, if FATA stops actively supporting domestic and foreign militants … just like the agreements signed in 1955, 1939, 1919, and 1872. Rather than indicating trickery on the part of the Pashtun border tribes, this should indicate the cyclical nature of conflict in the area: yes, one side or another (don’t forget the first cease fire was actually broken by the U.S.) will invariably resume violence, but as Trench explained, they consider this the natural state of things—and will even sit down for tea after the fighting and cordially discuss lessons learned with the very men they were trying to kill hours before.

Since 2006, several more agreements have been inked with various tribal militants, some of which even resulted in the supposed expulsion of foreign militants from the tribal areas. A flare up of fighting in April of 2007 further highlights the tribal nature of the conflict, in this case supposedly between Uzbeks aligned with the IMU and a prominent Arab member of al Qaeda, but probably also because of a split within local militant groups. More recently, attempts to replicate Anbar in NWFP have highlighted the intra-FATA splits within groups of Taliban militants. The proposed use of Maulvi Nazir in South Waziristan as a proxy fighter against Baitullah Mehsud—both of whom came to loggerheads over the IMU incident in early 2007, though both swear allegiance to the same radical Islamist ideology and fealty to Mullah Omar—further emphasizes that the roots of this conflict lie in tribal disputes, and not necessarily Islamist ideology.

Priorities Matter

Fighting in the FATA has been a cyclical fact of life for well over a century. Not only are the border tribes accustomed to the routine flare ups of violence between FATA tribes and the central governments of Pakistan, British India, and even Afghanistan, the most recent examples of it are remarkable only for the speed with which the cycle repeats itself. Despite the increased tempo of the violence-truce-violence-truce cycle—shortened from decades to just a few months—Pakistan doesn’t seem to consider the tribal areas an area of major concern. This explains the new civilian government’s apparently casual attitude toward the newest ceasefire.

In a list of Pakistan’s national priorities, dealing with the tribal areas is either at or near the bottom. The biggest concerns facing the country follow a fairly ordered pattern:

1. India
2. Domestic Urban Insurgents
3. China
4. Tribal Militants

Pakistan’s security posture must always be filtered through India. Husain Haqqani, in his definitive history of Pakistan, argues that from the moment of its inception, Pakistan’s rulers have worried about the influence of India, its power and its potential to fatally undermine Pakistan’s interests or territory—such was the reasoning behind the government’s active support of Taliban-style militants throughout the 1990s, destined not for Afghanistan but Indian-controlled Kashmir (documented a bit anecdotally in Greg Mortensen’s biography).

Internal threats are ranked very highly amongst Pakistan’s security concerns. In fact, Pervez Musharraf has been rather open in saying “internal threats” pose almost as much of a danger to the country as India. C. Christine Fair documented how these internal threats play such a huge role in Pakistani society: they have been primarily sectarian (i.e. Sunni-Shi’a) and inter-ethnic (i.e. Punjab-Sindhi), but most importantly urban. The Muhajir community, Urdu-speaking Muslims who emigrated from India after Partition in 1947, have been both perpetrators and victims of inter-ethnic violence concentrated primarily in Karachi and other areas of Sindh province. These acts of violence were exacerbated by the Iranian revolution, which created Sunni anxiety over the rise of Shiism. Waves of violence in the Sindhi city of Karachi, which is Pakistan’s economic powerhouse and primary port, have generated serious after-effects on the national economy.

It is even likely Pakistan’s relationship with China takes higher precedence over Islamabad’s relationship to the tribal areas. China has been Pakistan’s most consistent ally. For rather obvious reasons (they both share a deep dislike of India), the Chinese invest rather heavily in Pakistan, funding construction projects (like a brand new major port in the south) and many infrastructure and economic projects. In July of 2007, the Lal Masjid mosque complex—which had been ruled by two firebrand Deobandist clerics—was surrounded and eventually stormed by the Pakistani Army. Many analysts were puzzled at the length of time it took the Pakistani government to storm the mosque.

Given its predictable impact, in which Taliban-style militants in the tribal areas broke the 10-month old cease fire and started a third round of anti-government fighting in Waziristan, and the known relationship between one of the clerics with ISI, the real question is not why the government took so long to storm the building, but why it chose to storm the Mosque at this particular time. The month before the siege, militants from Lal Masjid abducted seven Chinese people and held for ransom. China was appalled—apparently enough to pressure the Musharraf government to take action against the militants.

Seen from this perspective, Islamabad most likely considers its relationship with China even more important than its relationship with the tribal belt. Given the enormous importance of the port of Gwadar, being built almost entirely by China far to the west of Karachi along the Gulf of Oman (in Baluchistan), it is likely that both urban sectarian insurgents in Karachi and Pakistan’s dependence on Chinese investment overpower any considerations they may have in dealing with the tribal areas.

Effects in Afghanistan

Probably the most pressing of American concerns over the cease fire is how it might affect Afghanistan. The worry is that should Mehsud ink a sustainable peace agreement with Islamabad, he’ll have more time and energy to launch attacks at U.S. forces in Afghanistan. However, it is unlikely the current cease fire will have any noticeable effect in Afghanistan. Whether a cease fire was in place or not in the NWFP, the area has been used consistently as a safe haven for cross-border militants. Going at least back to the initial round of the “Pashtunistan” movement in the 1940’s, Pashtun activists have essentially ignored the border regions. The biggest consideration was the relative degree of central control exercised in either area—whether in the west from Kabul or the east from Islamabad. Control only peaked on the Pakistani side during times of intervention—so it is likely the “safe haven” scenario would continue if the civilian government can make the peace agreement formal (which is uncertain, given their unwillingness to remove troops from the area).

On the Afghanistan side, it is unlikely anything will change. Even during recent periods of intervention—whether in 2002, 2004, 2006, or 2007—many areas in the tribal belt acted effective as refuges for militants in Afghanistan. Thus, no matter the level of Pakistani engagement with the tribes, the security impact has been generally limited to Pakistan, with an unchanging effect across the Durand Line.

Especially now that American forces are being granted a limited right of pursuit into FATA itself, it is likely, along with reports that the major infiltration passes are being effectively monitored by Afghan and American soldiers, that there will be a minimal impact on the country—good or bad. The cyclical nature of these agreements means their impact will be minimal, and things will most likely continue on as they have before.


Books referenced in this entry:

  • Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. New York: Penguin Press, 2004. (Review)
  • Ditcher, David. The North-West Frontier of West Pakistan: A Study in Regional Geography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
  • Dupree, Louis, Afghanistan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970. (Review)
  • Fair, C. Christine, Urban Battlefields of South Asia: Lessons Learned from Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan. Santa Monica: RAND (2004).
  • Haqqani, Husain. Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2005).
  • Klass, Rosanne. Afghanistan: Land of the High Flags. London: Hale, 1966. (Review)
  • Mortensen, Greg with David Oliver Relin. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time. New York: Penguin (2007). (Review)
  • Rashid, Ahmed. Taliban. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. (Review)
  • Trench, Charles Chenevix, The Frontier Scouts. London: Jonathan Cape, 1985.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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