By William Tucker
In Pakistan’s heavily populated tribal belt that runs along the Afghan border many militants, both foreign members of al-Qaeda and local Taliban, have found a safe haven. This haven has a large number of militant groups that wage war against ISAF forces in Afghanistan as well as the Pakistani state. Tackling the problem has been a difficult proposition for the U.S. and Pakistan. Pakistan will not allow U.S. forces to conduct ground operations within Pakistani territory – hence the drone operations – and the Pakistani military has not had much success in counterinsurgency operations in these agency’s over the last decade. Islamabad has played both sides of the drone war, but the Pakistani military knows that the locals cannot live with the airstrikes indefinitely. For its part, the U.S. cannot stop the drone strikes until the Pakistanis take more concrete action against militancy within its borders.
The situation looks like an immovable dilemma, but the Pakistanis have a way forward – imperfect as it may be. Islamabad wants the locals to evict the foreigners and fight the bad Taliban. This would be an ideal approach for the Pakistanis as they can remove the undesirable elements from their country all the while pushing their influence back into Afghanistan. Thus far, however, Pakistan has been unwilling to arm these militias directly. As a result, the militias haven’t struck at al-Qaeda, or the bad Taliban. The rationale behind the hesitancy of arming these groups would be the probability that the militias will also target the state. Pakistan’s position is understandable given the surge of violence that has struck the country over the last decade. Although the militias would like nothing more than to remove the interlopers, they are not willing to take on a better trained and equipped enemy without state support.
It is accurate to say that this debate is not new. This most recent discussion of arming the tribal militias was covered today in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. There is a fundamental difference this time around – the discussion in Washington of withdrawing U.S. forces. Without a U.S. presence in Afghanistan, or at least a significantly diminished one, Pakistan will have more room to maneuver and will not have to be overly concerned with U.S. objections. Ultimately, Pakistan must deal with the violence perpetrated against the state and the international terrorism that radiates from its borders. Arming a few militias in the tribal areas will not remove the problem, but it is one possible option for a nation that has few others.