By Ashley Bommer
Sitting next to a 1.2m-tall water pipe, I asked the Afghan tribal leader in front of me: What does victory mean to you?
He sputtered smoke, raised his bushy white eyebrows, and said: “Victory. How can you have victory here?”
The US went into Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda. But seven years later, what has the US achieved? It has spent more than US$170 billion in Afghanistan, and yet al-Qaeda and the Taliban are growing stronger.
We know that the road to the heart of al-Qaeda now leads to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan. Last month, vice president-elect Joe Biden — referring to al-Qaeda’s leadership — said: “That’s where they live. That’s where they are. That’s where it will come from. And right now [the threat] resides in Pakistan.”
Yet the US has no presence in the FATA. It has little contact or communication with its people and leaders. It provides little support, healthcare or aid to the population. The US sends in missiles and air strikes that infuriate the people rather than aid and emissaries to engage them. It is no surprise that the US has not won their support.
But there is a way to do so. People who have influence in the “unsettled” tribal areas live nearby in settled areas. These tribesmen move to the settled areas for economic and security reasons and they are the lifelines of their home villages.
The US must establish dialogue with and services for these influential people in order to build a bridge to the tribesmen in the unsettled FATA areas. These leaders already know the tribal chiefs, spiritual leaders and tribal customs and codes. They also know who the enemy is and can play a role in isolating militants from local people.
A friend from the region described the FATA as “a forgotten age” where only the “law of the jungle” prevails. These unsettled areas have become infiltrated by a multinational anti-state terror network (al-Qaeda, Taliban, the Haqqani network and roughly 14 definable anti-state elements operating in the FATA alone), which the US government calls “anti-coalition militias” and are far more sinister and interconnected than the West imagines.
With five years of Iraqi experience — and powerful communication and financial support behind them — this network is growing rapidly.
The FATA tribesmen are completely aware of this situation. When asked “If Osama bin Laden was in the house next door, would you notify the authorities?” the answer from the tribesmen I met was a resounding “no.”
As Frederick Mackeson, a British colonial officer, observed of the tribesmen in 1850, “their fidelity is measured by the length of the purse of their seducer, and they transfer their obedience according to the liberality of the donation.”
While the enemy weaves in and out of the tribal areas, living and interacting with the people, the US fights the war against al-Qaeda superficially through military air strikes and covert special operations. Homes are destroyed and people die. And because the US has no presence on the ground in any capacity, Americans are seen as the aggressors and the militants are seen as the protectors.
There are some exceptions. In Bajaur, some tribesmen regard the militants as the enemy and are fighting back — for now.
According to the Pakistani Center for Research and Security studies, 90 percent of the FATA’s inhabitants live below the poverty line, earning less than US$2 a day. To a newborn, life will be a struggle for survival in a war zone. It is not just the US presence that is lacking. The Pakistani government provides little to no services in this area. And the international community is absent as well.