With 15,000 fighters in Pakistan’s FATA, who is in control?

January 22, 2009

The governor of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province has been quoted as saying that there are 15,000 militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). 

The fighters, who would very nearly constitute a small army division, “have no dearth of rations, ammunition, equipment, even anti-tank mines,”  Owais Ahmad Ghani told a team from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan led by Asma Jahangir, according to newspaper reports. A militant or a foot soldier earned between  6,000 ($75) to 8000 rupees a month while commanders took home 20,000 rupees to 30,000 rupees, the governor said.
 
With 15,000 armed fighters, give or take a few thousand, you would have to wonder who is control of the area, them or the security forces?

Some people are already asking that question as the writ of the state, always very tenous in the FATA, has been forefully challenged in the nearby areas of the North West Frontier Province, especially in the scenic Swat valley.  Once popular with tourists, the alpine valley has become a battleground between the Pakistani Taliban determined to impose their strict interpretation of Islam as they push deeper into Pakistan on the one hand, and security forces trying to regain their grip.

The Taliban have imposed a ban on female education across Swat, saying it was “un-Islamic.” This week they blew up four schools after a government minister vowed to ensure that the schools re-opened in March after the winter break.

The Daily Times in an editorial headlined “The fall of Swat” said “after a year of military operations in Swat, the territory controlled by the terrorists has reportedly increased from 25 percent to 75 percent.”

Teachers in Swat say they can return to work only if the government restores peace and shuts down the militants’ radio over which they they make their threats, or if the militants themselves ask them to resume teaching.

“The ground reality is there is no safety,” the head of the local teachers’ union, Ziauddin Yousafzai, says in this Reuters story from the troubled area.

“If they’re destroying schools during a curfew, they can do anything,” he says.

It is a crisis that has almost crept up on Pakistanis without them realising it, writes Shireen M Mazari in The News. 

And while the militants are making deep inroads not just in FATA or Swat but also threatening Peshawar, the provincial capital of the North West Frontier Province, most Pakistanis seem to have been caught off-guard. ”Yes, many of us have been guilty of ignoring the escalating crisis in Swat as well as across the FATA region which has now spread to the settled areas right up to and into the provincial capital of Peshawar,” she writes.

What now ? Especially with a new U.S. administration led by President Barack Obama who is commiting more troops to Afghanistan, believing the Afghan-Pakistan theatre to be the central front in the war against al Qaeda.

Some people think the additional troops that the United States is sending to Afghanistan will be deployed in the areas facing FATA.

But as Shuja Nawaz says in a report for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the problem of FATA is far too complex to be resolved through military means alone. Here is a PDF of his excellent study entitled  FATA : A most dangerous place, that was flagged in an earlier post on this blog.

So is the Pakistani northwest, seen as the ground zero of the anti-U.S. jihad, going to be first security test of the new administration ?

[File pictures of a militant guarding security personnel in Swat and a protest in Lahore against U.S. drone aircraft attacks in the northwest]

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