06 October 2010

Why U.S.-Pakistan ties are disintegrating

The above is the title of a 5 October newswrap by The Atlantic Wire, which may be accessed here.

It says that the rapidly deteriorating situation in Pakistan has many re-evaluating basic U.S. assumptions, including the U.S. relationship with that country, and summarises what key opinion makers are saying:

-  The Afghan War is not making Pakistan safer (Time’s Robert Baer)

-  The U.S. should consider the possibility that Pakistan is a rogue state (Foreign Policy’s Simon Henderson)

-  The U.S. Military is moving off fossil fuel dependence (The New York Times’ Elizabeth Rosenthal)

-  The U.S. counter-terrorism strategy is making things worse (Salon’s Glenn Greenwald)

-  Many Pakistanis increasingly hate America (Foreign Policy’s Mosharraf Zaidi).

I would add another overarching problem. As is so often the case (Vietnam, Iraq) many of the key U.S. decision makers seem neither to know nor to care about the history of the country or region they are dealing with. The United States, over two Administrations (Bush and Obama) has been telling the Pakistanis that they must sort out what is going on in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and becoming exasperated to the point of incandescence that the Pakistanis fail to do so (not, it should be noted, that they haven’t carried out a number of major military operations, with great loss of life amongst their soldiers as well as great dislocation and loss of life amongst the tribals).

I would be one of the first to say that Pakistan has been and is an unreliable ally in Afghanistan because it has always had its own agenda and, thanks largely to the steadfast refusal of the Americans to concern themselves with how the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate spent U.S. taxpayer’s money during the insurgency against the Soviet Union, and subsequently, many Pakistani actions in Afghanistan have been seriously counterproductive.

But I have a lot of sympathy for the Pakistan Government in relation to their problems in the FATA, and for those who argue that American actions in and in relation to the FATA are a major problem.  The Federally Administered Tribal Areas are designated thus because, to the extent that they are administered at all by any external agency, they are administered direct from Islamabad.  They are neither states nor parts of states. Anyone who lives in a Federal structure ought to understand that.

An important part of the history of the FATA is that they are within Pakistan as a result in the first instance of an 1893 agreement between Henry Mortimer Durand, the Foreign Secretary of British India at the time, and the Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman Khan. The border marked out in the 1890s runs for 2,640 kilometres, is poorly marked, and cuts right through the Pashtun tribal areas. Pashtun tribespeople work, trade, marry and move across the border pretty much at will. Afghanistan and many Pashtuns reject it as an arbitrary division of the Pashtun heartland, and do not consider it to be a validated international boundary – so much so that Afghanistan opposed Pakistan’s application to join the United Nations upon independence in 1947.

In 1901 the tribal agencies on the British side of the Durand Line were first formally designated as such under British rule, as part of the arrangements for the administrative separation of the Pashtun region from the Province of Punjab.  The Pashtun region itself was divided into (initially) five tribal agencies and the “settled region” of the Pashtun belt, which latter became the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). The tribal agencies did not come under the administrative purview of the NWFP, but were administered by political agents under the orders of the Governor of NWFP, who was directly responsible to the Viceroy of India. The Governor was expressly instructed not to interfere in the internal affairs of the tribes, but to maintain friendly relations with them and to disburse tribal allowances that had been agreed in a series of treaties with tribal leaders.  If, in spite of the agreements and the financial inducements, the tribes caused trouble, the British would mount punitive expeditions and impose collective fines or other retribution, and withdraw speedily.

On partition in 1947 the fledgling state of Pakistan induced all of the tribes to become part of Pakistan, rather than India, but the status of the region remained somewhat ambiguous. All Pakistan’s regular army units were withdrawn from the region in December 1947, and in 1949 Pakistan negotiated an Instrument of Accession under which the FATA would maintain the semi-autonomous status and administrative arrangements established by the British in 1901.

Under Pakistan’s 1973 Constitution, the Pakistan Parliament has no power to legislate for the FATA – the President extends laws to the FATA through Presidential Regulations. The FATA have no police or law courts, and the Supreme Court does not have jurisdiction to safeguard and enforce constitutional rights there.

Today, the FATA consist of seven semi-autonomous agencies and the six frontier regions, which are situated within the NWFP.  The FATA cover an area of 27,000 sq. km. inhabited by 3.5 million people, and have a 600 km (Durand Line) border with Afghanistan.

It is into this delicate situation that the U.S. has thrust itself as part of its war in Afghanistan, with demands that the Pakistan Government get the tribals under control (something no-one has ever done since the Pashtuns first appeared in the historical record in about 500 B.C.) and its autonomously initiated cross-border drone strikes against people it considers to be its enemies.

This leaves the weak civilian Government of Pakistan in an impossible situation, and the resulting mess means that the Afghan War is destroying Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.


Principal source for the above background: Hilary Synnott, Transforming Pakistan: Ways out of instability, published by Routledge for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2009.

Hilary Synnott was British High Commissioner in Islamabad from 2001 to 2003, and the Coalition Provisional Authority’s Regional Coordinator for South Iraq in 2003-4. Before joining the diplomatic service he was a submariner in the Royal Navy.

His account of Pakistan’s current problems in their historical setting is a very readable one, and quite succinct (181 pages of text). I would recommend it as very good place to start for anyone who wants to acquire an understanding of contemporary Pakistan without dedicating a huge amount of time to doing so.

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