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Afghan-Pakistan Border Area Offers Many Challenges to Outsiders - 2004-03-22

The border areas where al-Qaida militants are battling Pakistan army troops have long been lawless regions where the central government has no control. In moving troops into the region, the Pakistan government is breaking a mutual understanding with the fiercely independent tribesmen who live there.

If there are any places on earth where the term "wild west" still applies, Pakistan's tribal areas qualify.

Nestled along the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan, seven territories - called "tribal agencies" by the government - are home to fiercely independent tribesmen who recognize no law but their own tribal code. Trading in guns and drugs is commonplace. And terrorists can find a safe haven.

But analysts like Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, say that is changing as tribal autonomy is breaking down under the pressure of the war on terrorism. "These events have triggered a debate in Pakistan about the isolation the tribals have had over the years. And many Pakistanis are now arguing that it's an anachronism to have a part of a country which is basically autonomous and without any law or order," he says.

Tribal peoples are scattered on both sides of the rugged, porous 2,400 kilometer-long Afghanistan-Pakistan border. To the estimated six million people, mostly ethnic Pashtuns, who inhabit the tribal agencies, the border is meaningless.

The tribal areas were carved out during the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent. After two wars failed to subdue the tribesmen, British colonial authorities gave them great autonomy in return for safe passage through strategic roads like the Khyber Pass. The arrangement continued after the creation of modern Pakistan in 1947. To this day, Pakistani law has no sway in tribal areas, and wandering off the main road in Khyber Pass can prove disastrous for an outsider.

Mr. Cohen says Pakistan's military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, has decided that the tribal areas' reputation as a terrorist safe haven is an embarrassment to Pakistan and a threat to the relationship between Washington and Islamabad. "Their calculation is even though they may take some casualties, the relationship in terms of the United States is very important. And also in terms of establishing Pakistan's sovereignty over some of these regions is important, because these are areas that are not simply hard to get into, but they've housed some of the world's most notorious terrorists. And this has given Pakistan a very bad reputation," he says.

The tribesmen have paid a price for their relative autonomy. Even in impoverished Pakistan, the tribal areas lag far behind the rest of the country in basic amenities such as schools and clean water.

Kathy Gannon, Associated Press Bureau Chief in Pakistan and a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the Musharraf government has begun building schools, roads, and clinics in tribal areas to try to exert more control. But, she says, the government must tread carefully and assure the tribes that the government wants to work with them, not dominate them. "If you try to co-opt them, they will also be a good partner. But you have to really get in there and co-opt them. You can't force them. The moment you try to force the Pashtuns, they will resist. And they will say, fine, you want us to be your enemy, we're your enemy. And then you've got a real problem on your hands," she says.

What the government wants to avoid, say analysts, is any fanning of the fires of Pashtun nationalism - calls for an independent state of "Pashtunistan."