Militancy and the Pakistan-Afghanistan Border

21. Jan 2008

Nicklas Norling Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), Stockholm

A number of destabilizing events have negatively affected both Pakistan and Afghanistan in the past year. Al-Qaeda has revitalized its presence along the Pakistan-Afghan border and suicide-bombings in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have skyrocketed. As a result, increasingly complex battle lines are being drawn between militants, government forces, and tribal elders while sectarian violence has become widespread, particularly between Shiites and Sunnis in Kurram Agency bordering Afghanistan. The militant network responsible for much of this is not limited to nationals of Pakistani or Afghan origin but also consists of Chechen, Arab, Uzbek, and Tajik fighters, illustrating the tight interconnectedness of this problem with countries in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

The resurgence in violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and especially along the border, is partly a consequence of a flawed strategy by NATO’s ISAF coalition and the government in Afghanistan combined with an insufficient handling of the problem by Musharraf’s government in Pakistan. An effective counter-insurgency campaign has two components to it: to root out militants through military means while simultaneously winning the hearts and minds of the local population and provide for socio-economic development. The coalition, the Afghan government, and Pakistan have failed on both counts.

In consequence, what has emerged today amounts no less than a lawless area and terrorist safe haven stretching from central Afghanistan all the way to Swat near Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. The establishment of this corridor has been possible through a combination of the weakness in maintaining law and order in Pakistan, a shift of the main front in the global Jihadist war from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and through cooperation between various Al Qaeda associates on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The collusion between militant groups in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), including those led by Baitallah Mehsud (the man suspected to be behind Benazir Bhutto’s killing, Maulana Fazlullah, and Jalaluddin Haqqani (former Minister in Taliban government), have enabled them to extend their territory and influence beyond the tribal areas in Pakistan and link their cause to that of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. This was best manifested with the establishment in late December 2007 of the Pakistan Taliban Movement, including some 40 Pakistani Jihadist organizations.

The methods espoused by this ruthless band of militants, including beheadings and killings of civilians, have however alienated the local population and resulted in defections by more moderate elements. Tribal elders who have criticized and raised their objections to the methods pursued have been murdered while the radical cleric Maulana Fazlur Rehman, who has cooperated with the Musharraf government, has ended up on al-Qaeda’s hitlist.

The current resurgence of terrorism along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and its implications for political development is indicative to the current shape and form of the global war on terror. It is becoming increasingly bestial, resilient, and adaptive to the tactics devised to counter it.

So far, the response to this problem has been more reactive than proactive. When the situation in Afghanistan was assumed to have stabilized, the US relocated many of its forces to Iraq. Now when the “surge” seems to be working in Iraq, there are talks about relocating forces back to Afghanistan. In short, efforts to counter terrorism have been one step beyond rather than one step ahead. Musharraf, for his part, waited until the radical forces took a firm hold over the country until he reacted in 2004 and launched the counter-insurgency in Waziristan. As a consequence, democratization in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq have been thwarted and political activity has been rendered impossible.

To pursue a pro-active approach in the wider region, the West, allied governments, and Pakistan need to appreciate the need for both long-term active counter-terrorism and economic development. This will require a complete alteration of the current strategy. The aerial bombings that both the coalition in Afghanistan and the Pakistani governments have pursued in the respective territories have resulted in heavy civilian casualties and are counterproductive. One of the greatest assets that the coalition has is the resentment displayed against the al-Qaeda militants, but this asset may be lost as a consequence of the collateral damage imposed.

This needs to be complemented by economic development that directly accrues the people on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The economic synergy that exists across the Durand Line between Afghan and Pakistani traders is the key to the development of FATA and neighboring communities. Currently, there are however very few crossing points and trading zones available for Afghan and Pakistani traders to use. This hampers the ability to make full use of the historic trading legacy across this frontier.


p class=”MsoNormal”> Should these steps be taken there exist a possibility in bringing stability to the region. This will, however, require a high degree of cooperation between local tribal elders, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Only then can the militant forces be further marginalized, the collusion of militants across the border be broken, and economic development take off.