Defeating the Taliban in Pakistan
By Mehreen Farooq and Waleed Ziad – from The Hill
It’s the strategy, stupid. Once again, we’re hoping that Pakistan’s latest offensive in the tribal belt will solve the Taliban problem. Our military-centric strategy, which has cost us eight years and $10 billion tax dollars, is incomplete. What’s missing is the complementary soft-power component necessary to secure the pivotal conflict zone in the war on terror.
The Taliban stronghold, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), is one of Pakistan’s most impoverished regions. In spite of all our resources, U.S. development assistance here has been underfunded, slow and ineffective. In contrast, the Taliban have been quick to provide economic benefits like profit-sharing schemes for workers in a captured emerald mine, and distributing land seized from oppressive landlords to peasants. In short, our strategy has rendered us unable to compete with the Taliban for hearts and minds.
Recently, we finally made a long-term pledge of $7.5 billion for civilian assistance to Pakistan. This five-year commitment can tip the balance in this war. However, unless six key challenges of implementing aid in FATA are tackled, we’re wasting our tax dollars. And if we lose FATA, we lose this war.
First, we need to grasp FATA’s unique situation. With its inaccessible terrain, FATA has forged its own proud traditions and laws. The people value their independence. They distrust outside interference as memories of abandonment by the West after the Afghan War are painfully fresh. Once trust is earned, however, they will honor friends above all else.
Second, FATA requires a bottom-up strategy. Our present top-down approach involves working with political agents and maliks, or tribal power brokers, who are out of touch with the needs of the 60 percent of FATA’s population below the poverty line. As a result, according to Ms. Bushra Gohar, a National Assembly member from the Frontier Province, “none of the [tribal] agencies have a hospital, university or any of the other basic social services.” Local non-governmental organizations, teachers, and underrepresented groups like women need to be brought into the discussion so that the people of FATA can take ownership of developing their region, with local institutions carrying out projects.
Third, the U.S. should encourage Pakistan to implement key reforms in the Tribal Areas, where the absence of political freedoms and economic opportunities breeds extremism. The problem is that FATA is not a province of Pakistan, but a “territory,” a veritable no-man’s land. The local government can’t even develop its budget or levy taxes, let alone take ownership of the development process. On top of that, banks can’t approve loans and industries can’t be regulated. Democratic and economic reforms are a prerequisite to sustainable development.
Fourth, our aid agency needs to be more active on the ground. USAID’s hands-off reliance on contractors and grantees has decreased oversight and accountability, disconnecting the organization from the people they strive to help. For example, an audit of its flagship Education Sector Reform Assistance to counter radical madrasas revealed that it was not possible to assess whether the contractor achieved any of its objectives, and found $16 million unaccounted for. USAID needs to conduct more field visits, clarify grant objectives and tighten project evaluations.
Fifth, we can’t let security concerns paralyze us. We should start by building schools, roads and hospitals in stable regions on the peripheries of conflict zones, like Bannu and Karak. The success of these projects would not only engender goodwill toward the U.S., but encourage locals in FATA to replicate the efforts. This “demonstration effect” has worked in conflict zones worldwide.
Finally, we need to ramp up our PR and increase transparency. Virtually no information on USAID projects in the tribal belt is available and many Pakistanis believe the aid is consumed by contractors. In the war-torn Swat Valley, rumors abound of USAID fueling the Taliban. Regularly engaging with Pakistani media and policy makers, even updating USAID’s website, could lend credibility to our efforts and reduce hostility towards foreigners.
At the end of the day, our aid should empower Pakistanis to take charge of the soft-power counterinsurgency. If one thing stands out from our recent meetings with people of the frontier provinces it is that the will to reclaim their country from extremists is palpable, especially after the recent wave of terrorism. Consider the frontier village of Kala Dhaka, whose jirga countered Talibanism by citing the example of Prophet Mohammad’s wife Khadija to prove that women have the right to education and employment. If we harness this will and create a long-term relationship of trust outside of the military sphere, our tax dollars will be well spent.