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Pakistan's Tribal Areas Pose Test for New US Strategy


One of the most difficult issues facing the Obama administration as it shapes its new strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan, is what to do in western Pakistan's Taliban-dominated tribal region. While there is a broad consensus among coalition partners about the threat posed by the militants, there is little agreement on a solution.

As militant violence surged to new highs in Afghanistan last year, Pakistan also logged a record number of attacks. One Islamabad research institute estimated nearly 8,000 people were killed in the violence in Pakistan in 2008 - more deaths than the previous three years combined.

Pakistani officials blame militants based in the tribal regions for much of the violence. U.S. and Afghan officials say those same areas act as Taliban and al-Qaida safe havens for cross-border attacks, making them a crucial part of the Afghan insurgency's resiliency.

But aerial strikes by U.S. drones against suspected militant targets in the tribal regions have triggered many angry complaints by the Pakistani government, particularly when the attacks result in civilian deaths. On Thursday, foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Basit called the missile strikes "counterproductive."

"We have put across our viewpoint with sincerity and with the hope that they would review their policy in the context of drone attacks so that our effort to win our fight against terrorism is successful," he said.

Despite the complaints, the airstrikes have sharply increased, with more than 30 since last year. U.S. officials have largely refrained from publicly speaking about the operations, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this year there are no plans to stop them.

While there is widespread suspicion that Pakistani officials privately condone the airstrikes because they target government enemies, the operations remain highly unpopular.

Defense analyst Talat Masood says the drone operations are potent symbols of what many Pakistanis believe is America's over-reliance on military power.

"Pakistan is absolutely certain that this war cannot be won by military force alone. And even today, America, despite the lessons that it has learned, it still relies heavily on the military," he said.

The rugged tribal regions have long resisted central-government control. They historically have had different laws, political structures and police forces from the rest of the country. Many observers say those policies have contributed to creating an impoverished, undereducated and isolated population.

Hasham Baber is an official in the Awami National Party, a secular political party whose constituency is largely in Pakistan's northwest.

"The tribal areas of Pakistan are like a black hole. They are below the line of poverty. And it is very easy to recruit people. Most of the recruits are not really people who have an ideology, but they do it for bread and butter. So development must take place," he said.

U.S. officials have also called for more development in Pakistan's poor western regions, but powerful Taliban militant groups and ongoing violence have largely stalled significant projects.

The Obama administration's new regional plan is expected to include funds for additional development and diplomatic initiatives, which Pakistani officials have welcomed.

But there are concerns that drone airstrikes and ongoing fighting along the Afghan border could overshadow those efforts, turning more locals against the Pakistani government.

Pakistan's former ambassador to Kabul, Rustam Shah Mohmand, warns against escalating the offensive against the militants.

"It is exactly like the situation in Afghanistan. The collateral damage sustained by the population over the last eight years has driven more and more people into the fold of the insurgents. And that is exactly what is going to happen in the tribal areas," he said.

Pakistan's army has conducted offensives in several tribal agencies in recent years. But the military ended hostilities with peace agreements that critics say repeatedly allowed the Taliban to move back in and take control.

With much of the tribal region dominated by several Taliban factions, the government is turning to an old practice of striking agreements with local tribal militias, called lashkars, to handle security.

It is still early to determine how well the practice is working and there are concerns the militias lack the training and equipment to counter the Taliban. But some tribal leaders say they are the best hope for stabilizing the violent region.

Malik Warris Khan, a leader in the Khyber agency, says the tribes should be given a chance.

He says if people want peace, the tribal leaders can play a role, if we are given the power and authority to do so. He says if we fail, then they are free to continue the drone attacks.

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