Pakistan’s Volatile North-West Frontier

Thursday, December 14, 2006
9:30 AM – 11:30 AM


Michael Scheuer
Senior Fellow, The Jamestown Foundation
Hassan Abbas
Fellow, Harvard’s JFK School of Government


On December 14, The Jamestown Foundation hosted an event featuring Hassan Abbas, a fellow at Harvard’s JFK School of Government, and Michael Scheuer, a senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation and the former chief of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit. More than 90 guests attended the conference, which was titled Pakistan’s Volatile North-West Frontier: Pashtun Tribes, Taliban, and al-Qaeda.

Hassan Abbas, who is a former Sub-Divisional Police Chief in the NWFP and former Deputy Director of Investigations in Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau from 1999-2000, began the conference by highlighting some critical issues affecting stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan:

– Pakistan and Afghanistan have reached an unprecedented level of tension over the border.
– Musharraf is dangerously close to losing control of the tribal regions.
– The traditional tribal maliks, a cornerstone in governing the tribal belt, are being assassinated in growing numbers.
– NWFP Governor Orakzai, who was appointed by Musharraf, has lost credibility with his own people, the Pashtuns, as a result of the recent Bajaur Agency airstrike.
– Foreign aid to Pakistan is not reaching the tribal areas.
– Musharraf faces increasing pressure from the Pashtun element in the military.

Before analyzing these issues, Mr. Abbas presented a detailed overview of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the NWFP:

– Wahhabi and Deobandi influences are strong in the tribal regions, but especially so in North and South Waziristan.
– There are approximately 60 major Pashtun tribes, yet more than 400 sub-clans.
– The Pashtuns in the tribal belt profit from trading, tracking, trucking and trafficking.
– Education levels are low.
– The entire border region has been a rentier state historically. Pashtuns have not surrendered control of their territory to outside forces; nevertheless, they are prone to compromise.
– Suicide bombings were largely unheard of in the region until recently. Now, the number of suicide attacks has escalated significantly in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
– The Durand Line, which separates Pakistan and Afghanistan, is long and twisted, making it very difficult to patrol. Despite there being some 186 check points on the Pakistan side of the border, human traffic continues to flow between the two states.

Mr. Abbas then outlined the current ground realities in the tribal regions. While Pakistan’s writ in the tribal areas has always been minimal, the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan exacerbated the problem. Islamabad’s political agents in the tribal agencies are under constant threat of attack, and those accused of supporting the government are regularly killed. Extremist tendencies are on the rise in the tribal belt, and some of this has to do with al-Qaeda’s influence. Tribal maliks are being killed at an unprecedented rate, with some 200 assassinated in the last two years. This has resulted in the elimination of the traditional tribal leadership.

In an especially revealing statement, Mr. Abbas explained a primary reason for the difficulty in controlling the tribal areas. While the Pakistani army is mainly composed of Punjabis, approximately 20-25 percent of it is Pashtun. Due to Pashtun culture, these Pashtun soldiers regularly take leave at their homes in the tribal regions, sometimes every two to three weeks. Here they are influenced by developments "back home," which pressures the Pakistani government to keep this section of the military satisfied. According to Mr. Abbas, this may be one reason why Musharraf has tried to establish peace deals in the tribal agencies.

Mr. Abbas then offered some solutions to alleviate the strain in the tribal areas:

– Negotiate with Afghan and Pashtun leaders in tribal jirga format rather than round table discussions.
– Attempt to revitalize secular forces in the tribal areas, such as Asfandyar Wali Khan, the leader of the Awami National Party.
– Consider incorporating some of the tribal areas into the settled areas of the NWFP.
– Recognize that the military option has not worked.
– Oversee Pakistan’s spending policies in the tribal areas since much of the foreign aid coming to Pakistan for this purpose is not evident on the ground.
– Increase infrastructure investment in Afghanistan in order to dull the draw that this conflict has on Pashtuns in the tribal belt.
– Allow journalists and human rights organizations into the tribal areas.

After Hassan Abbas’ speech, Michael Scheuer examined al-Qaeda’s involvement in FATA and the NWFP, the border areas in general, how intelligence gathering is accomplished on the Frontier and ways ahead. According to Mr. Scheuer, Osama bin Laden established bases and contacts in the border region throughout the 1980s, well before the creation of al-Qaeda. This influence originated when Abdullah Azzam and bin Laden created the Afghan Services Bureau to coordinate humanitarian and military operations in Afghanistan during the jihad against the Soviets. In the early 1980s, bin Laden developed a working relationship with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistan Army. This relationship facilitated bin Laden’s access to the border regions. During this time, bin Laden established ties with notorious Afghan figures, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Qazi Mohammad. It was these various ties that assisted Osama bin Laden and the core al-Qaeda leadership in their escape from Tora Bora in 2001.

Mr. Scheuer then explained how intelligence work in the border areas is conducted. The tribal areas present a formidable obstacle in acquiring intelligence since the Pashtuns are divided into various sub-tribes and are often at odds with each other. The society is very insular and Westerners are not welcome, making it difficult to insert Special Forces units into the region. While it is possible to recruit Pashtuns to assist outside forces in intelligence gathering, it is almost impossible to recruit a Pashtun that will condemn another Pashtun or even a non-Pashtun Muslim. Furthermore, after nearly three decades of conflict, the Pashtun brand of Islam has moved closer to the more conservative standard of the Middle East. Not only do Western intelligence services suffer from these factors, but Pakistan’s own ISI and military also encounter the same problems. An even more basic dilemma is the topography of the region and the nature of the border–to this day, accurate maps are difficult to find, even for the intelligence services.

According to Mr. Scheuer, the outlook for the region is not positive. Karzai’s government in Kabul is in a state of demise and is increasingly unpopular at home. Failure to secure the border will mean that Pashtun and al-Qaeda insurgents will continue to engage in attacks in Afghanistan and then use Pakistan as a rear base, remaining free from U.S. and NATO reprisals.


The Jamestown Foundation 1111 16th St. NW 7th Floor Conference Room Washington, DC 20036