FATA is not a country in Africa

June 7, 2012

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is using increasingly forthright terms to describe the spillover of the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in its campaign of drone strikes. “We are fighting a war in the FATA, we are fighting a war against terrorism,” he said during a visit to India. The idea that the United States is at war inside Pakistan, albeit in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, is not new. But the use of language is significant, requiring as Spencer Ackerman noted at Danger Room, “a war-weary (US) public to get used to fighting what’s effectively a third war in a decade, even if this one relies far more on remote controlled robots than ground troops”.

Panetta’s choice of words (and venue for delivering them) may not go down too well with Pakistani authorities in Islamabad/Rawalpindi. It is not particularly promising for the people of FATA either, who find themselves caught in the middle of a shadow war between the United States and Pakistan. But in one respect, it is not necessarily a bad thing. Rarely has the United States fought a war in a place about which it knows so little. If Panetta’s comments force people to learn about FATA, it might even lift us out of what until now has been a polemical debate between supporters and opponents of drone strikes, with little attention paid to the voices of people who actually live there.

For a start, we have to understand that not only are those voices not heard, but they are actively marginalised. For the U.S. administration, arguing that drone attacks are legal, ethical and wise, and a complicit U.S. public, the people on the ground are best dismissed as turbaned, bearded dangerous folks living in “the tribal badlands” (a phrase that really ought to be banned along with “Graveyard of Empires” and “the Great Game”.) For opponents of drones in Pakistan, their voices are marginalised by a virulent strain of anti-Americanism through which political popularity or greater bargaining power in negotiations with the United States can best be attained by whipping up rage about the drone strikes.

This is, incidentally, not to defend drones – there are many reasons to question them, from the steady degradation of respect for the rule of law, to the damage to the west’s own concept of itself as a democratic role model, to the risk that decapitating known leaders allows them to be replaced by even more ruthless men. It is, however, to suggest that the motives of some of those opposing drone strikes should not be taken at face value.  In the pernicious propaganda war between the United States and Pakistan, nothing should be taken at face value, including the many sweeping assertions made about the impact of drones on Pakistani society as a whole.  (For that reason, nor should we extrapolate from the Pakistani experience and superimpose it on the debate on the merits of drone strikes in Yemen – that country has its own specific issues.)

Sometimes the marginalisation of the views of people in FATA is deliberate; keeping them out of mainstream Pakistani politics helped the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to use the tribal areas following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 as a deniable base for Islamist militants. And sometimes the marginalisation is unwitting – a continuation of a tendency dating back to the Raj to exclude “the periphery”, or an assumption that the people of FATA are somehow not capable of speaking for themselves.

Last year, Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid wrote a short story in which they were made to speak the patois of black American slaves. (Pashto, a difficult language with a long tradition of poetry, being somehow beyond them.) More recently, Clive Stafford Smith, director of the charity Reprieve, wrote about a meeting in Islamabad with some tribal elders from Waziristan who he said were making “a rare foray out of their region to meet outsiders and discuss the killing. The isolation of the Waziris is almost total – no western journalist has been to Miranshah (the main town in North Waziristan) for several
years.” But it is not true that the people of FATA rarely leave their region – this ignores the many waves of Pashtun migration, continuing to this day in those who leave to work in the Gulf or in “mainland” Pakistan. And the crucial factor here is the definition of isolation – western journalists can’t go there – so a people become isolated based on what we can do, rather than what they can do (compare that to European views that Africa was “uncivilised” before David Livingstone “discovered” it, and you begin to see why it is problematic.)

What is important to understand is that both the United States and Pakistan, and likewise many of the supporters and opponents of drone strikes, have an incentive to ignore the people who live in the tribal areas – and that in turn spills over into many of the assumptions made by those who try to remain outside of the fray.

Even Afghanistan has a stake in maintaining ignorance. Were FATA – governed by the colonial Frontier Crimes Regulation – to be incorporated into Pakistan proper, its border with Afghanistan would eventually have to be acknowledged. Afghanistan has never recognised the 1893 Durand Line which Pakistan claims as its border, and popularly views Afghan or Pashtun lands legitimately stretching as far as the Indus river – comprising all of FATA and parts of the so-called “settled areas” of Pakistan.


There is not, however, any excuse for the rest of us to refuse to try to learn. Yes, it is hard for outsiders to travel to FATA, except on day trips with the Pakistan Army (I have been only once, to Bajaur, and was struck by how different it looked to my own mental images.) But try going on Twitter and typing anything with the hashtag #drones, and you are likely to get a huge range of different opinions, both from Pashtun inside Pakistan and in the diaspora. When I tweeted a link to an article in the Daily Times by Muhammad Zubair suggesting that the people in Waziristan were less opposed to drone strikes than
is commonly believed, it began a two-hour debate – my argument was that by focusing almost exclusively on drones we ignored the need to look at the broader problems in FATA, from its political exclusion to its use as a sanctuary for Islamist militants.

Two people recommended reading a survey, published in February, on the attitudes of people in FATA. Surveys in conflict zones are tricky, since we know people are less likely to risk telling the truth. But it provides useful data to act as a benchmark against some of the wilder propaganda. The findings are contradictory in parts, and it would be too easy to quote selectively to back up a predetermined position, so I would recommend reading it in full.

But there are a few threads worth pursuing. Drone strikes are unpopular, as we would expect. But contrary to the dominant narrative, tolerance for drones – though still low - actually increases, for example in North Waziristan, in the very same areas where these missile strikes are most frequent. Remember, these are the people who know best whether drone strikes are precise or cause many civilian casualties; they are also the ones who are best placed to judge the trade-off between drone strikes, Pakistan military operations and life under Taliban rule.

The biggest threat people see to their security, according to the survey, comes from terrorist attacks rather than drone strikes. And contrary to assertions that drones are encouraging the creation of terrorist safe havens, a large majority said they wanted all Islamist fighters – foreign fighters and Afghan and Pakistani Taliban – out.

And here’s the important finding. Drone strikes do not dominate the thinking of the people of FATA in the way that the polemicists would have you believe. While outsiders obsess about the legality of drones, the people of FATA talk about access to education and healthcare. (Seriously, that should not be difficult to understand. Do I think drones breach Pakistani sovereignty? Does my child have access to a good education? Which matters to me most? If we don’t know the answer to that, we really have lost the plot.)

Demand for political reform appears to be quite strong, with more in favour of FATA becoming a separate and fully recognised province of Pakistan than those who want it to be incorporated into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly North West Frontier Province.). Few seems to want to keep the old system run according to the FCR. Many do not know what needs to happen; they just know it needs to change.

We shall find many holes in this survey, and many reasons will be proffered for ignoring it. (It was largely ignored when it came out in February.) So I won’t stake my reputation in a definitive opinion of its findings. Where I will stake my reputation, however, is in asserting that our lack of knowledge is deliberate.


This week I unearthed a book I had borrowed in order to return it – a 1938 edition of the British ”Handbooks for the Indian Army” dealing with “Pathans”. Coming from a generation who grew up learning to be ashamed of colonialism, I expected it to appal me. What I found was a tract which was sympathetic and respectful. It cautioned against using stereotypes about the Pathans, as the British used to call the Pashtun. It admired their history and poetry, commended them as soldiers; noted their respect for democracy and justice and insisted on paying attention quickly to their grievances. Avoiding the trap of
thinking that all people of FATA are the same,  it described in detail the different tribes – their lifestyles often influenced by availability of arable land. The British liked to study and classify their imperial subjects all the better to control them - rather as a collector pins rare butterflies to a wall – so let’s not get carried away with the supposed benevolence.

But consider what it said about the need for political reform. “Pathans have often been stimatized as combining some of the worst traits of human character,” it noted, when describing their violent lifestyle and endless blood feuds. “But it is difficult to perceive in what other manner the tribesman is to protect himself, and his property and family, unless there is a complete social change of the conditions under which he lives; and as long as there is no settled government, and the principle of might being right prevails, this cannot occur.”

Remember that was 1938 and the British had already acknowledged the need for “settled government” even if they did not implement it. By now, one would have thought we would have become more aware. If nothing else, in the long years since the Sept 11 attacks on New York and Washington we might have studied the region where the United States is, as Panetta said, “at war”. Yet we know less about FATA now than the British did more than 70 years ago. These are the “tribal badlands”, the terms of their isolation defined by us rather than them, a place we choose not to know. Rather than knowledge we have polemics on drones.  What have we become?


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