Tribes versus Terrorists

ISLAMABAD – Sitting next to a four-foot-tall water pipe, I asked the 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 United States went into Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda. But seven years later, what has the US achieved? It has spent over $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 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 there. America 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.