Ahmed: To understand Pakistan is to understand its tribal societies

Akbar Ahmed delivers an Interfaith Lecture about the tribal regions of Pakistan Monday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Adam Birkan.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

Pakistan is an integral player and ally in the United States’ war on terror. It is also, according to President Barack Obama, one of the most dangerous places in the world.

“Pakistan is a much maligned, little understood, very important country,” Akbar Ahmed said.

To understand Pakistan, and ultimately complete U.S. operations in the region with a semblance of a victory, it is necessary that those in decision-making positions understand the nature of the tribes and tribal regions of Pakistan, Ahmed said.

On Monday, Ahmed opened this week’s Interfaith Lecture Series focused on the theme “The People of Pakistan,” with a lecture titled “The Most Dangerous Place in the World — The Tribal Areas of Pakistan.” In his lecture, Ahmed analyzed the present and past conditions of the tribal areas, the ways of life and structures of the tribes and provided a prescription for how best to progress out of the current crisis.

Ahmed is currently the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. He was formerly the Pakistani ambassador to the United Kingdom and Ireland. He has written many books including, Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam and Suspended Somewhere Between: A Book of Verse.

Ahmed is working on a new book that will be titled The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam. Thistle and drone are two metaphors that reflect the society we live in today, during the age of globalization, Ahmed said. The idea for “thistle” arises from Tolstoy’s final novel, Hadji Murat. In the novel, Tolstoy travels to the Caucuses, where he sees tribes resisting central government and fighting for independence and freedom, Ahmed said.

“The tribes we are talking about are very similar,” he said.

The “drones” aspect of the title refers to the sleek new weaponry that kills without compassion. The title “Thistle and Drone” reflects the melding of those two worlds on account of increased globalization and also as a consequence of Sept. 11.

The tribal societies have existed and sparked trouble in Pakistan for thousands of years, but after Sept. 11, they became caught up in the global war on terror, Ahmed said.

“And the United States — wittingly, unwittingly, willingly, unwillingly, knowingly, unknowingly — has gotten caught up in this very much localized confrontation, and you’re seeing the results unfolding now,” Ahmed said.

One of the primary aspects to understand about Pakistan is the relevance of its tribes. They are now, and historically have been, key players in domestic and international affairs.

“These are people who are very much in play today — they have entire countries named after them today,” Ahmed said. “Waziristan is the land of the Wazir tribe, Afghanistan is the land of the Afghan peoples.”

He said it is also necessary to acknowledge that in tribal areas in Pakistan, there is growing influence from foreign powers, including China, India, Iran and Russia.

To better understand the nature of the tribal areas, their histories, cultures and identities, it is important to explore their historical record, Ahmed said.

During the 19th century, the British Empire was an unstoppable force. As the colonial giant continued its quest for expansion, it invaded Afghanistan’s tribal regions. A few months after its offensive, one man, Dr. Brydon, arrived in Jalalabad alone. He was the only survivor from the British forces, Ahmed said.

“These are the Pashtun tribes,” Ahmed said. “The Afghans have never been defeated in history — they will destroy themselves. You blow up their villages, destroy their families, but they are very much like the Americans — they believe in independence and freedom.”

The region of Waziristan is particularly difficult to control for multiple reasons, Ahmed said. It has mountainous terrain and contains the Wazir and the Mahsud tribes, two of the toughest tribes who also fight each other. During the 1930s, there were more soldiers in Waziristan than on the rest of the subcontinent combined. Ahmed quoted Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, as saying of the region: “Waziristan is beyond control. What they need is the steamroller — a steamroller to go from one end to the other end to completely crush them. But I will not be the steamroller.”

Today, in the areas that are home to the most fiercely independent tribes of Pakistan, hide some of the most violent versions of the Taliban. Those actors are relentlessly violent — they blow up schools, homes, other closely related tribes, Ahmed said. That, coupled with the exorbitant number of drone strikes in the region, has left the people of Waziristan traumatized, Ahmed said. Drones hit their intended targets only 2 percent of the time, he said. The other 98 percent of the time, if a drone falls and kills someone, the drone acts as captor, judge and executioner all in one swoop.

“This is how they describe it. They say day and night, you hear this buzzing. It’s like the Angel of Death, and you don’t know when it’s coming, you don’t know where it’s going to land, who’s going to be taken out,” Ahmed said.

It would be easy to say that everyone who lives in the tribal region of Pakistan is a part of the Taliban, or the TTP — which stands for Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the umbrella term for all militant Taliban groups — but that is not the case. The tribal people are also the victims of terrorist groups, Ahmed said.

“They say everyday is like 9/11 for us,” Ahmed said. “The government of Pakistan has to ensure that there is stability and law and order in those areas.”

The drone attacks and the violent members of the Taliban and TTP victimize Pakistan’s tribes. In the past decade, the tribal region’s three pillars of structure and authority have been destroyed, Ahmed said.

The first pillar of authority in tribes are the elders. In the past few years, 800 tribal elders have been assassinated, Ahmed said. The second pillar of authority is religious leadership. In the tribal areas, religious leaders serve as pacifiers.

And the United States — wittingly, unwittingly, willingly, unwillingly, knowingly, unknowingly — has gotten caught up in this very much localized confrontation, and you’re seeing the results unfolding now.

—Akbar Ahmed
Former Pakistani ambassador
to the U.K. and Ireland

“That is the second pillar attacked by the TTP — all the religious leadership who traditionally have some authority have been targeted,” Ahmed said.

The last pillar of structure and stability is the political agent, set up by the British, who represents a connection to central government and the services it should provide. Since Pakistan has become independent, it has not adjusted the political agent’s role in those regions to truly represent their people, Ahmed said.

Without those three pillars, there is no structure in the region. Without any structure, there can only be a furthering of the present crisis, he said.

“Right now, you have no structure,” Ahmed said. “What you have in this vacuum is the military, the general, the GOC (General Officer Commanding). The GOC now runs the shots, so when he calls the shots, the political agent is marginalized, the tribal elder is marginalized.

“They have the money, they have the guns, they have the authority, but they are not trained to deal with the tribes.”

Even the British understood that the people who worked in or with the tribal region must understand the region’s language and customs, Ahmed said. The problem is not just a problem for Americans; the Pakistani government is too remote from the tribal people. It is important that anyone working with Pashtuns or Wazirs understand the nature, or moral and ethical code of the people, Ahmed said.

The Pashtuns in particular have a code of honor, a sort of chivalric code rooted in honesty and courage. There is a famous Pashtun saying that says, “I took revenge after a hundred years, and I took it too soon,” Ahmed said.

“But what’s happening today with the TTP as they walk into a school, or a mosque, or a church and just blow up everyone is a negation of this code of honor,” Ahmed said.

If one were to ask a tribesman why the violence is happening at such an unprecedented rate, he would respond that that has been the case since Sept. 11. Following Sept. 11, when the U.S. pressured President Pervez Musharraf to control the tribal regions, he opted for the steamroller approach, Ahmed said.

“He sent in 100,000 troops or 50,000, troops and that began the present cycle of violence, which hasn’t quite ended,” he said.

The president’s offensive in the region, along with other incidents such as the storming of the Red Mosque in Islamabad — which left many women and children dead — has created a sense among the tribal people, that Pakistan’s current government is anti-tribal and anti-Islam, Ahmed said.

“So you’re seeing this evolution of the war on terror. America is in Afghanistan fighting a war on terror. In the meantime, a very different war is evolving in Pakistan itself,” he said.

Today, the TTP is engaged in revenge attacks against the Pakistan army, which is working to crush the TTP, Ahmed said. Americans are involved, but they do not know how to proceed, so they are putting pressure in all directions and solving nothing, he said.

Photo by Adam Birkan.

Before any solution is devised, all parties must acknowledge that the people of the Pashtun tribe were autonomous of centralized government for approximately one thousand years, and then they enjoyed semi-independence for the century they were ruled by British.

“One century of more or less being left alone and one decade of sheer hell — it’s hell on earth right now in the tribal areas, its total uncertainty, total chaos, total violence, and with no control,” Ahmed said.

In light of that complex imbroglio, it may seem easiest for the U.S. to wash its hands of the situation and back out as soon as it can. That is not an option anymore, because of “The Great Game,” Ahmed said.

“The Great Game” was a conflict between the British Empire and Russia during the 19th century. The two powers fought over influence and supremacy in Asia.

“Today, you have a 21st century version of the great game, which means it’s confused, you don’t know who’s doing what to whom, and you don’t really know the objectives, but players are there in the field,” Ahmed said.

Pakistan is in the center of Asia, the center of strategic relevance, he said. China is on one side, India is to the south, Russia to the north, Iran and the Arab states to the west.

“Already the foreign powers are there, and they would like nothing better than the United States to leave, so it is in the interest of the United States to be there,” Ahmed said. “If it is in its interest, then it must win this war. And if it must win this war, it must win it not necessarily on the battlefield, but learn from history, learn from the British political agents who won these wars not through military might.”

The U.S. is competing with great superpowers now, and now more than ever, it needs its strongest military forces healthy and intact, Ahmed said. Instead, they have been broken by the ill-conceived conflict in Afghanistan and the tribal regions of Pakistan.

“There are more suicide deaths than the Taliban have killed Americans,” he said.

Ahmed told the story of Alexander the Great and King Porus. Alexander and his men were fighting Porus and his troops for a long time. By the time Alexander’s troops got the upper hand, they were tired, frustrated and wanted to go home. They vented their frustrations on Porus and told Alexander to kill and torture the captured king. When Porus was brought before Alexander, Alexander asked Porus how he wanted to be treated, and Porus responded: like a king.

“Alexander, now, he could have done several things,” Ahmed said. “He could have said, ‘Off to the torture chambers, bring out the waterboarding.’ Or he could have said, ‘I’ll treat you differently, I’ll try you.’

“Alexander, he said, ‘You will be treated like a king, come and sit with me.’ He put King Porus next to himself, and he said, ‘From today, King Porus will represent me in the kingdom,’ ” Ahmed said.

With one strategic move, Alexander turned his enemy into his ally, Ahmed said. The U.S. can use those stories to develop a strategy that will let it exit a bad situation in a positive light, Ahmed said.

In the final portion of his lecture, Ahmed offered certain prescriptions that could help counteract the present system.

“You need to be thinking of education; the education of the tribal areas is appalling,” he said.

Five percent of men and zero percent of women in tribal regions are educated. Pakistan must pay attention and provide education, Ahmed said.

The U.S. and Pakistan must repair their tenuous relationship, he said.

“Pakistan must help people understand the history and culture of the tribal peoples. It must help its American allies understand the history and the culture,” Ahmed said.

Pakistan and the U.S. have a mutually required relationship, and it is in the interest of both countries if that relationship is repaired. Not just so Pakistan can continue to receive aid, Ahmed said, but because Pakistan aims for a healthy society and a democracy similar to that in the U.S.

Ahmed told the story of Jackie Kennedy’s trip to Pakistan in 1962. At the start of her trip, Kennedy went to Lahore and took photos with the president in front of a cheering applauding crowd. Then, she went to the tribal regions of Pakistan where the tribesmen, with celebratory slaughtered cows, goats, sheep and open arms, graciously welcomed her.

“The challenge we have today in America is which America is being seen in Pakistan,” Ahmed said. “Is it the America which was loved, where people are throwing flowers at them, or is it the America of today, where there is so much unpleasantness between both countries?”

There are many lessons from the U.S. — democracy, civil liberties and human rights — Pakistanis must learn, Ahmed said. At the same time, there are many lessons the U.S. can learn from having an ally in that contentious region of the world, he said.

The more stable Pakistan is, the stronger it will be as an ally and friend to the U.S., Ahmed said. But if Pakistan is not stabilized, there could also be detrimental effects for the U.S.

“The more you shake this rather shaky structure, it’s going to end up badly for all of us.”