The Idiot's Guide to Pakistan

March 2009 |
We should know what we’re talking about when we talk about Pakistan.
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After eight years of a White House that often seemed blinkered by the threats posed by Pakistan, the Obama administration seems to grasp the severity of the myriad crises affecting the South Asian state. The media has followed suit and increased its presence and reporting, a trend confirmed by CNN’s decision to set up a bureau in Islamabad last year.

And yet, the uptick in coverage hasn’t necessarily clarified the who’s-doing-what-to-whom confusion in Pakistan. Some commentators continue to confuse the tribal areas with the North-West Frontier Province. And the word lashkars is used to describe all kinds of otherwise cross-purposed groups, some fighting the Taliban, some fighting India, and some fighting Shiites.

I admit, it’s not easy. I lived in Pakistan throughout all of 2006 and 2007 and only came to understand, say, the tribal breakdown in South Waziristan during my final days. So to save you the trouble of having to live in Pakistan for two years to differentiate between the Wazirs and the Mehsuds, the Frontier Corps and the Rangers, I’ve written an “idiot’s guide” that will hopefully clear some things up.

The Troubled Tribals

Bring up the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at a Washington cocktail party and you’re sure to impress. Tick off the name of a Taliban leader or two and make a reference to North Waziristan, and you might be on your way to a lucrative lecture tour. The problem, of course, is that no one knows if you’ll be speaking the truth or not. A map of the border region is crammed with the names of agencies, provinces, frontier regions, and districts, which are sometimes flip-flopped and misused. With only an unselfish interest in making you more-impressive cocktail party material (and thus, getting you booked with a lecture agent during these economic hard times), I want to straighten some things out.

First off, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas are not part of the North-West Frontier Province. The two are separate entities in almost every sense of the word. While the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) is, well, a province with an elected assembly, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are geographically separate areas governed through “political agents” who are appointed by the president and supported by the governor of NWFP (who is also a presidential appointee). Residents of NWFP technically live according to the laws drafted by the Parliament in Islamabad, while the only nontribal law applicable to residents of FATA is the Frontier Crimes Regulations, a colonial-era dictate sanctioning collective punishment for tribes and subtribes guilty of disrupting the peace.

Within FATA, there are seven “agencies” and six “frontier regions.” The agencies are Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan; the somewhat more governed frontier regions (FRs) cling like barnacles to the eastern edge of FATA and include FR Peshawar, FR Kohat, FR Bannu, FR Lakki, FR Tank, and FR Dera Ismail Khan, each of them named after the “settled” districts they border.

All residents of FATA and the vast majority of those in NWFP are ethnically Pashtuns. Pashtuns also make up the majority in Baluchistan, the vast province bordering Iran and Afghanistan, which is named after the minority Baluch. Besides NWFP and Baluchistan, there are two other provinces in Pakistan; Punjab is populated mostly by ethnic Punjabis, and Sindh was historically dominated by Sindhis until millions of Muslims migrated from India at the time of Partition and settled in Sindhi cities such as Karachi and Hyderabad. Now, Sindh is composed of ethnic Sindhis and the descendents of these migrants, known as mohajirs.

Foreigners are prohibited from entering FATA without government permission. If you see a newspaper dateline from a town inside FATA, chances are that the Pakistani Army organized a field trip for reporters. Those traveling unaccompanied into, say, South Waziristan have either a death wish or a really good rapport with the Taliban, who effectively run North and South Waziristan and large portions of the other agencies and frontier regions. The recalcitrance of the tribesmen is hardly something new. In the words of Lord Curzon, the former viceroy of India: “No patchwork scheme -- and all our present recent schemes, blockade, allowances, etc., are mere patchwork -- will settle the Waziristan problem. Not until the military steamroller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start that machine.”

A Taliban Who’s Who

In December 2007, the smattering of bearded, black-turbaned, AK-47-toting gangs in FATA and NWFP announced that they would now answer to a single name, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban Movement. For decades, Pakistani jihadists have used such fancy names to declare splinter groups (many of which go unnoticed), but some analysts latched onto the TTP as gospel and postulated that, overnight, the Talibs had become disciplined and united. In the process, such analysts have overlooked important distinctions and divisions within the pro-Taliban groups operating in Pakistan.

Let’s start with a little history. In 1996, Mullah Mohammed Omar and his band of “Taliban” -- defined in Urdu, Pashto, and Arabic as “students” or “seekers” -- conquered Afghanistan. Five years later, the United States routed the Taliban government and the al Qaeda henchmen who had been operating under Mullah Omar’s protection. Many of them escaped into FATA, which is of course technically part of Pakistan but truthfully ruled by tribes whose loyalty, in this instance, fell with the Taliban and their foreign guests, al Qaeda. Before long, groups of men from FATA had begun banding together and crossing the border to fight against the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Pashtuns ignore the border separating Afghanistan and Pakistan, named the Durand Line after the Englishman who drew it in 1893; the Pashtun “nation” encompasses wherever Pashtuns may live. Fighting the Americans, therefore, was seen as self-defense, even for the residents of FATA. Meanwhile, al Qaeda was entrenching itself more and more in FATA. These largely Arab and Uzbek outsiders influenced a new Taliban mind-set, one far more aggressive toward the Pakistani military and disruptive toward the local, tribal traditions. So, back to the cocktail party: Someone mentions Baitullah Mehsud, the man accused by Pakistani and U.S. intelligence of masterminding the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Although Mehsud is the nominal chief of the TTP, he has plenty of rivals, even in his native South Waziristan. Two major tribes populate South Waziristan: the Mehsuds and the Wazirs. The Wazirs dominate Wana, the main city in South Waziristan. But the ranking Taliban leader from the Wazirs, Maulvi Nazir, is a darling of Pakistan’s military establishment.

You’re probably scratching your head right now, a bit confused. You see, Nazir is only interested in fighting U.S., Afghan, and NATO forces across the border. He is not part of the TTP and has not been involved in the wave of violence sweeping Pakistan of late. Therefore, in the minds of Pakistani generals, he is a “good” Taliban versus Baitullah Mehsud, who is, in their mind, unequivocally “bad.” That’s just one example of Talibs living in Pakistan who do not necessarily come under the title “Pakistani Taliban” or the “Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan” moniker.

In Swat Valley, where Islamabad recently signed a peace treaty with the Taliban, the fissures among the militants are more generational. Swat, unlike South Waziristan, is part of NWFP and shares no border with Afghanistan. In the late 1980s, a group calling itself the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, TNSM or the Movement for the Establishment of the Law of Mohammed, launched a drive to impose Islamic law in Swat and its environs. They resorted to violence against the state in the 1990s on numerous occasions, including once taking over the local airport and blocking the main road connecting Pakistan to China.

After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the leader of TNSM, Sufi Mohammed, organized a group of madrasa students and led them across the border to combat the Americans. But only Sufi Mohammed returned. The legions who had followed him were “martyred,” or so he told their parents. Sufi Mohammed was thrown in jail by then president and Army chief Pervez Musharraf, and so he named his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, to run TNSM in his stead. But Fazlullah had wider ambitions and assembled a several-hundred-man army vowing to fight the Pakistani government. The senior leadership of TNSM soon disowned Fazlullah, who happily embarked on his own and is now Mehsud’s deputy in the TTP. For the past year and a half, Fazlullah’s devotees have bombed, kidnapped, and assassinated anyone who’s dared to challenge their writ in Swat.

By 2008, Sufi Mohammed looked like a moderate in comparison to his son-in-law. So the Pakistani government asked him to mediate. Perhaps he could cool Fazlullah down. The recent treaty you’ve heard about in Swat is between the Pakistani government and Sufi Mohammed, who has pledged to bring Fazlullah on board. So far, the treaty has held, unless you count the soldiers who were killed by Fazlullah’s Talibs for not “informing the Taliban of their movements.”

Kiss My Lashkar

You might have heard the word lashkar of late and wondered what a science fiction character was doing in Pakistan. This past fall, two distinctly different stories featured lashkars carrying out two distinctly different missions. In one, Lashkar-e-Taiba was executing a murderous campaign of violence in Mumbai; in another, lashkars were fighting against the Taliban in FATA. In other words, one was having a terrible effect while the other seemed to be doing some good. (Oh yeah, in another, less read story, Lashkar-e-Janghvi was killing Shiites in the southwestern city of Quetta.) So what gives? What’s a lashkar?

In Arabic, the language of Islam, a lashkar describes an irregular tribal militia. Say you’re a tribesman in South Waziristan who has beef with a member of a rival tribe. You need a posse. So you raise a lashkar. When news broke in October that the Pakistani government was sending Chinese-made AK-47s to tribesmen willing to defy Taliban rule in FATA, the weapons were said to be sent to lashkars. That’s a lashkar in the traditional sense of the word.

But Pakistan’s jihadi groups, to glorify their agendas, have long used the word lashkar in their names. (Other common Arabic names for army include sipah and jaish.) Although Lashkar-e-Taiba is committed to fighting the Indians over Kashmir, Lashkar-e-Janghvi is bent on killing Shiites, and Jaish-e-Mohammed seems ready to attack anyone. The proliferation of these terrorist militias became so bad that in January 2002, Musharraf was obliged to declare, “Our army is the only sipah and lashkar in Pakistan.”

Border Guards

If there was so much confusion over who was and wasn’t the real army in Pakistan that the Army chief had to intervene and clarify, perhaps someone from the Pakistani military should set the record straight on who’s fighting whom in FATA. This confusion came to a head last June, when a contingent of Pakistani forces, known as the Frontier Corps, was locked in a gun battle with U.S. soldiers across the border. The U.S. troops were pursuing Talibs attempting to retreat back across the border into Pakistan. The kerfuffle ended -- at least the armed one, the diplomatic one was just starting -- when a few bombs dropped by U.S. planes landed on the Frontier Corps outposts and killed 11 Pakistani border guards. So what’s the deal with the Frontier Corps? Whose side are they on anyway?

The Frontier Corps (FC) are a paramilitary force composed of roughly 80,000 men tasked with border security, law enforcement, and increasingly, counterinsurgency in FATA, NWFP, and Baluchistan. (Rangers fill similar tasks in Punjab and Sindh, the provinces bordering India.) By almost any definition outlining the ideal counterinsurgent, the FC would be it: They are almost all Pashtuns, more familiar with the language, the people, the tribes, and the terrain than any regular Pakistani soldier or U.S. troop could ever be. But their biggest advantage also happens to be their biggest liability, because Pashtuns are renowned for their sense of community; asking one Pashtun to kill another, especially when it’s seen as being done at the bidding of an “outsider,” be it Punjabi or American, would be like your boss telling you to kill your cousin. Not gonna happen, right?

The Pakistani leadership, and before them, the British, weren’t blind to this issue. To try to limit potential conflicts of interest, they said that Wazirs wouldn’t serve in Waziri areas, Afridis (based in Khyber agency and FR Kohat) wouldn’t serve in Afridi areas, and so on. Questions over ethnic sympathies simply couldn’t be surmounted, but this way at least concerns over clan and family sympathies could.

In the past few years, Washington has realized the significance of the FC and tried to enhance its fighting capability. (Traditionally, an FC corpsman would sport a salwar-kameez -- the baggy trousers and tunic get-up -- leather sandals, and an AK-47.) But the problems of getting money to the right FC units have been numerous.

First off, the FC falls under the Interior Ministry, not the Defense Ministry, which overseas the half-million-member Army and has received the lion’s share of U.S. aid since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The Defense Ministry’s dominance of the aid game means that the money Washington gives Islamabad to reimburse Pakistani security forces for operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda, money known as Coalition Support Funds, hardly, if ever, trickles down to the FC units manning a border post in South Waziristan who are, truly, on the “front lines” of the so-called war on terror.

Second, there is an issue of command structure because the FC is officered by regular Army colonels and generals. And finally, there is the problem that, owing to the widespread anger among Pashtuns toward the United States and the Pakistani establishment, no one can say whether the FC won’t simply hand over night-vision goggles and new weapons to the Taliban, especially when oversight by U.S. officials in FATA, parts of NWFP, and Baluchistan is so scarce.

Finger on the Trigger

There is some leeway in the grooming standards and fitness levels expected by the Pakistani Army -- especially for officers. Mornings are for praying and sleeping; lunches are for buffets; and evenings are for gallons of tea. Not much time for exercise, is there? And mustaches? The thicker, the better. Beards? The longer, the better. Does that mean that the Pakistani Army is composed of Islamic fundamentalists salivating at the opportunity to fire some nukes? Yes and no.

First a disclaimer: Most Pakistani soldiers consider India to be their mortal enemy and would like nothing more than to incinerate their neighbor. They get that from the grade-school textbooks. And they will usually frame the conflict between them and India as one between Islam and Hinduism. This ground has been pretty well covered by others who write about Pakistan.

But we should realize that anti-Indianism doesn’t translate to Talibanism, what with locking up womenfolk and caning criminals and all. Consider the serving chief of Army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who is beardless, reportedly enjoys an occasional Scotch and a game of bridge, chain-smokes cigarettes through a long plastic tip, and is a favorite of the Americans. In other words, he’s not likely to declare himself “Commander of the Faithful” anytime soon.

But what about the ISI? We hear so much about the ISI, or Inter-Services Intelligence, being manned by al Qaeda sympathizers, sponsoring regional terrorism, and forming the vanguard of Islamism in Pakistan. Aren’t they Islamist?

Let’s complicate matters before we take up this question. The ISI is the intelligence wing of the military. The Army, meanwhile, has its own intelligence wing, confusingly named Military Intelligence (MI). The Interior Ministry has its own: Special Branch. And so on and so forth; there are more intelligence wings in Pakistan than there are varieties of dal. And when Pakistanis on the street suspect that they’re involved in something nefarious, they simply refer to “the agencies.” That way, there’s no need to specify which agency was responsible because no one has any idea who is behind what, frankly.

Are people within the ISI any more Islamist than any of the others? I don’t see why they would be. The ISI draws from the ranks of the regular Army (in addition to some civilians), the same Army that is commanded by Sandhurst-educated, Johnnie Walker Black Label-loving Anglophiles. What makes the ISI different is not so much its personnel as its agenda, an agenda that might, on any given day, include ferrying money to Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan or training Lashkar-e-Taiba fighters to wage jihad against India in Kashmir. These programs are considered to serve Pakistan’s national interests, not the religious preferences of its generals.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any kind of soft corner for the agencies and certainly don’t want to seem an apologist for them. They kicked me out of the country once via deportation and chased me out another time by planting stories in the local press that I had been kidnapped. I feel no love for the ISI, MI, Special Branch, or any of their shady affiliates. But they’re not all the same. Keep that in mind at your next cocktail party. We should know what we’re talking about when we talk about Pakistan.

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