The Pulse

Afghanistan’s Tribal Areas Are Still the Key to the War on Terror

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The Pulse

Afghanistan’s Tribal Areas Are Still the Key to the War on Terror

A recent suicide attack on a tribal jirga underscores the region’s importance to global terrorism.

Afghanistan’s Tribal Areas Are Still the Key to the War on Terror
Credit: ISAF Photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Aramis X. Ramirez

On October 31, a suicide bomber killed six people and wounded six others at a meeting of tribal elders in the eastern province of Nangarhar in Afghanistan. Elders had gathered at a house to resolve internal disputes through a own traditional “jirga” (elders’ gathering).

Suicide attacks have increasingly become a major weapon in the hands of terrorists. They cost little, cause huge damage and are difficult to trace and prevent. Moreover, such attacks attract high media attention, inflicting a large psychological impact both upon the masses and governments. Accordingly, suicide bombers have become a prime tool of terror for ISIS and the Taliban. These suicide bombers are mainly trained and indoctrinated in the sanctuaries that exist in the tribal areas, and attacks are launched in major cities on specified targets to create maximum impact.

Today’s terrorism has become a dangerous “weapon of the weak.” Terrorists can organize, recruit, and carry out their attack, all while avoiding arrest or face-to-face conventional fighting. Accordingly, weak states and lawless, ungoverned areas serve as a base of operations for terrorist groups. A bloody zone of semi-autonomous anarchy, the tribal areas along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, also known as the tribal belt, has been lawless and ungoverned for centuries.

Throughout history and particularly now, a decade and half after the invasion of U.S. forces, Afghanistan’s central government has failed to establish true popular legitimacy in the remote areas, which has weakened the notion of citizenship among the inhabitants, along with their trust and confidence in the government. Instead, tribal people have their own “customary law,” composed of traditional legal codes and legalistic institutionalized procedure aimed at protecting locals’ rights and maintaining cohesiveness and order. This law is efficiently practiced through certain codes and, for those living the remote tribal areas, is far better than the sluggish, corrupt, and frustrating bureaucratic decisions of the central government. The residents normally owe their loyalty to the maliks, local leaders, which have all the authority of representing their constituents and tribesmen. Those living in the tribal belt place their loyalty on their families, clans, and tribes, not in Kabul or Islamabad.

However, Islamic State (ISIS) operatives and other extremist militants have also gained a foothold in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, beyond the reach of the government. The tribal belt, once known for its unique social values, customary laws, and strategic importance, currently has turned into a blood theater and is losing its identity as a unified entity. ISIS and Taliban have gathered the extremist diaspora, bringing Islamists from around the world to the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Here, terrorists recuperate, train, and send suicide bombers and insurgents to attack U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.

With the arrival of foreign terrorists in the area, the actual representation of Pashtuns has been hijacked by those who do not represent the interests and feelings of the Pashtun population of the area. Whoever among the tribesmen rises against the terrorists and extremists risks being shot dead by the militants. Elders, influential people, and local leaders of the Pashtun tribes are deliberately targeted. Thousands of tribal elders and prominent personalities among Pashtuns have been killed. Even the tribal jirgas and traditional social activities in which tribal leaders reach important decisions related to the area have been targeted by the terrorists’ suicide attacks, with yesterday providing the most recent example.

The tribal area’s mountainous, rugged terrain and long porous borders have provided natural shelter to ISIS-affiliated terrorists and insurgents; the area also serves as a breeding ground for criminals, fugitives and rebels. Should another 9/11 type of attack take place, it will probably have its origins in this belt, and as long as the terrorism issue in this region is not addressed, the U.S.-led coalition force’s mission in Afghanistan will face ongoing challenges.

This makes it necessary for the U.S. and international community to address the issue of rising terrorism and militancy from this area, which has become an ideological center, operational locus, and hub for global terrorism. As the Council on Foreign Relations put it back in 2008, “few places on earth are as important to U.S. national security as the tribal belt along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.” Sadly, that remains true today, for the same reasons.

The Tribal Belt and Militarism 

In the aftermath of American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, both al-Qaeda and the Taliban sought refuge in tribal belt on along the AfPak border. No prior steps were taken to prevent them from escaping and taking shelter in the mountains of the tribal belt. One of the most important reasons for the ineffective response to al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the area was the lack of a clear and overarching strategy when the U.S. attack was launched in Afghanistan.

The porous nature of the border combined with the social, economic, and political complexion of the tribal areas also favored terrorist groups seeking to gain safe havens in this area. The wide political and psychological distance between center and periphery proved a conducive ground for al-Qaeda and extremist groups to win over locals.

The tribal belt is among the poorest and most neglected parts of Afghanistan. More than 60 percent of its inhabitants live below the poverty line. Basic necessities like clean drinking water, gas, electricity, and health care are either non-existent or severely limited in quality and availability. Education is uncommon, with literacy rates at 17 percent for men and 3 percent for women. The region’s unemployed, poverty-ridden, and mostly frustrated youths are at risk of being hijacked by the psycho-political and emotional mobilization of radical extremist groups.

A sense of deprivation, the lack of rule of law, and injustice all combined to create space for the Taliban in particular. The once-rulers of Afghanistan, the Taliban used force to providing the people with parallel security and (often unjust) judicial systems. The Taliban have established their own “courts,” even extending their reach to some settled districts of Pakistan like Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. These parallel administrations pose an inexorable challenge to the writ of the state.

Numerous military operations have been launched against the so-called hardcore militants but progress seems remote. The military operations, instead of bringing positive results, have backfired and resulted in the expansion of the militancy.

Future Course

Given the enormity and complexity of the situation, so far the militants have proved a hard nut to crack but this situation needs to be addressed urgently and speedily. The future course must be charted carefully through a holistic approach where people are convinced to reject extremism in its all forms and work toward establishing a peaceful, tolerant, pluralistic, and law-abiding society.

The United States, together with the international community, needs to devise a well-defined, holistic, multi-pronged strategy in order to eradicate a fertile breeding ground that nurtures and recruits ordinary people for dangerous terrorist activities. In order to address this issue, a direct approach to the locals through the international community is necessary, as the regional governments have lost the tribal people’s trust and confidence. The local population must be taken on board to counter the threat of militancy. Any military operations must be precise and limited in order to avoid collateral damage.

The media can play pivotal role in educating people and winning their confidence. On the other hand, a strict check has to be maintained on the religious madrassas, which instead of religious learning centers have turned into breeding grounds for terrorism and extremism.

Finally, economic and social inequality is one of the key factors driving the recruitment of militant organizations. A robust economic recovery plan is needed, which could help in generating economic activity and employment for resident.

Before becoming Political Officer at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington D.C., Ahmad Shah Katawazai served in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan. He has a Master’s Degree in International Relations and a Second Master’s in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed in this article are his own.