The Pakistani government has begun to target members of the Mehsud tribe for the crimes of Baitullah Mehsud, the Washington Post reports:
“They just said, ‘You are a member of the Mehsud tribe, and we are going to seal up this business,’ ” Mehsud recalled. “My crime is that I belong to the Mehsuds.”
Beyond the frustration of closing a business he ran for nine years and the sting of losing an income averaging $1,400 a week, the most vexing part of Mehsud’s situation is that he is on the wrong side of the law. The Pakistani government has declared war on Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud and his network of several thousand fighters in the nearby tribal district of South Waziristan. And under regulations formulated a century ago by British colonial rulers, Pakistan’s tribes are still bound by a legal concept known as “collective responsibility,” under which any tribal member can be punished for the crimes of another.
The crackdown on the Mehsuds was spelled out in an order from the top political official in South Waziristan, Shahab Ali Shah, on June 14. Because the Mehsud tribesmen had not handed over Taliban fighters, Shah wrote, he was satisfied that they had acted “in an unfriendly and hostile manner toward the state” and that the tribe’s “people and their activities are prejudicial to peace and public tranquillity.”
The Post doesn’t quite get around to explaining that the collective punishment provisions within the Frontier Crimes Regulations are, technically, violating international law (and during conflict are considered War Crimes). While the Post reporters play up the humanitarian side of the story, it’s important to remember that this was the point of the FCR: to create an intolerable situation within the tribe, or to punish the entire tribe so severely, such that future militancy would be unlikely. Given the history of the Mehsuds in the 20th century, it’s a safe bet that treating them as outsiders barely above the status of animals hasn’t done much to make militancy unattractive and integrate them into the State—despite the best efforts of entrepreneurial Mehsuds who are now having their businesses shut down.
Now, the issues posed by the FCR are not new to readers of this blog. Fourteen months ago, we discussed the problems posed by the Northwest’s antiquated security framework, which had done little more than assure a cycle of conflicts, retributions, and cease-fires. Last September we discussed how the Pakistani government’s insistence on enforcing the FCR would only lead to more extremism. And earlier this year we discussed some alternative models for how the Pashtun areas of Pakistan could be integrated into the state, and how that would diffuse some of the class warfare that is driving a portion of the insurgency.
And then there’s also patience. A charismatic Islamic fundamentalist militant leader from Waziristan is about as rare as a tsunami—it happens once every couple of decades, wreaks tremendous damage, but then things settle back to normal. This has been a particularly violent outbreak of militarism, and the government’s response has so far been more violent than in the past, but so far at least it has remained well within the bounds of history.
That doesn’t excuse the Pakistani government’s behavior, however—they spent years deliberately underestimating the extent of the problem, and years more refusing the pony up the resources to tackle it. They still are. Closing down legitimate businesses, which actually give Mehsuds and other Pashtuns a stake in the legitimate political and economic institutions of Pakistani society, is about the worst thing they can do. History or no, it’s time for them to try something other than a century-old system of retribution and maybe look to establish a permanent solution that brings Pashtuns into the state, instead of violently forcing them to the outside.