PESHAWAR, Pakistan – In the imposing Bala Hisar fort looking down over this frontier city, Maj. Gen. Tariq Khan is planning how to stop the Taliban advances.
An intense man with fluent, clipped British-style English, he once was Pakistan’s representative to Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla. Now he commands the Frontier Corps (FC), a 60,000-man paramilitary force that has taken the brunt of the fighting against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
As anxiety mounts in Washington over whether Pakistan can push back Taliban gains that have brought them within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad, Khan insists that any panic is misplaced.
“I would not measure the seventh-largest army in the world (Pakistan’s) against a bunch of militants,” he insisted, even as he discussed possible plans to move FC troops into the Taliban’s newest stronghold of Buner.
Referring to the “peace deal” with radical Islamists in the valley of Swat, a deal that is unraveling fast, he said firmly: “We are going to assist the government in enforcing the writ (of law) in whatever ways they want. If it requires military force, we will use it.”
Yet as Khan talked, the contradictions that make Pakistan’s security situation so precarious were apparent. Khan is a serious man trying to do his best for his country, but his efforts are challenged by political forces beyond his control.
The Frontier Corps is assigned to maintain law and order in the tribal areas and patrol the long border with Afghanistan. Over 30 years, dating back to the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, thousands of Islamic militants, including members of al-Qaida, have flowed into these areas. Under such circumstances, the Frontier Corps became almost irrelevant and was starved of equipment funds.
Its role revived, however, in recent years, as the militants began to threaten Pakistan directly. Pakistan’s huge army has proved unwilling or unable to defeat the jihadis. So the Frontier Corps took on a larger role. Unlike the army, whose troops are predominantly from Pakistan’s Punjab heartland, FC recruits are Pathans from the tribal border regions who know the local language and the culture.
“The FC is designed to work in this area,” Khan says, “and it has linkages with the people and is a more acceptable force for internal security matters.”
Some argue that the loyalty of FC troops may be in doubt, since they share the same Pashtun ethnicity as the Taliban. Khan denies any lack of commitment. Indeed, many of his troopers have stayed on despite death threats, and four cantonments are being built to help soldiers and their families who have been threatened where they live.
In eight months on the job, Khan has tried to reorganize the Corps, even as his troops have fought militants in tribal regions such as Bajaur. But he depends for equipment on the army and on U.S. aid (the Corps has received $40 million in transportation and communications equipment and body armor and has been working with American technical trainers). The FC still doesn’t have its own air capacity so it can react rapidly across long distances. Such capacity is vital to fight guerrillas in mountainous terrain that extends for hundreds of miles along the Afghan border.
Equally crucial, the Frontier Corps lacks the necessary political support to hold and rebuild tribal areas from which militants have been pushed out. About 100,000 refugees from the fighting in Bajaur have been languishing for months in fetid camps, providing rich pickings for Taliban recruiters.
I visited Kacha Garhi camp on the outskirts of Peshawar, a flat, dusty expanse with endless rows of brown tents housing 16,000 men, women and children. Men and boys crowded round me; they spoke of meager rations, lack of water or firewood for cooking, and overflowing latrines. They talked of their fear of facing the 120-degree temperatures of summer, especially since their women are forbidden by their culture from leaving the tents.
When I spoke of the refugees to Gen. Khan, he responded: “If in the next few months we don’t show them something concrete on the ground as far as development and rehabilitation, then people are also going to hold this against the government.”
He said his team had prepared plans for reconstruction but no one had offered the resources.
“We’ve had a lot of promises and poetry but nothing else,” he said.
The refugees emphasized another crucial point that undercuts efforts to fight militancy. Every single one said the government was helping the Taliban. I heard the same thing from people fleeing Swat. The common refrain: “The army is not hitting the Taliban, only our villagers.” The villagers say the government wants to protect the Taliban so it can have friends in Kabul when the Taliban take over Afghanistan.
This mistrust of government undercuts another key piece of Khan’s strategy. He wants to rebuild the broken tradition of raising local tribal militias, known as levies. Like the tribal militias that finally beat back al-Qaida in Iraq, these levies could play a key role in repulsing the Taliban, with support from the army and Frontier Corps.
“So long as you stand up and show political and military resolve … the people will stand up also,” Khan said.
He’s right. But in many instances when locals did rise up, militants crushed their militias; the army never came to the rescue. So even though they detest the Taliban, many villagers won’t fight back.
“The problem is less what the Taliban are doing but what the Pakistani government is not doing,” one Western diplomat told me.
The Frontier Corps should be helped to build capacity to clear out the Taliban. But unless Pakistan’s government and its allies help consolidate those gains, the battle will still be lost.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at trubinphillynews.com.