Military Operations in FATA: Eliminating Terrorism or Preventing the Balkanization of Pakistan?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 12

Ever since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the radical turnaround in Pakistan’s policy toward the Taliban, there has been an ongoing debate in Pakistan over whether President Pervez Musharraf has gone too far in supporting the U.S.-sponsored War on Terrorism. The popular sentiment against Musharraf has been unequivocally demonstrated by the result of the February 18 general elections where his political supporters suffered an abject defeat. While there is enough evidence to substantiate Musharraf’s compulsion in supporting the United States, it is equally important not to lose sight of the importance the War on Terrorism has for Pakistan’s national interests.

The recent events in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) indicate the imperative for Pakistan to quell the resurgence of militant extremist elements. An objective view of the current situation in FATA reveals several similarities between the situation there and that which prevailed in erstwhile East Pakistan in 1971. It has been over three and a half decades since Lt. Gen. Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi of the Pakistan Army, along with 93,000 servicemen, surrendered to Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora, the commander of the Indian and Bangladeshi Forces, marking the fall of East Pakistan’s provincial capital city of Dhaka and the creation of the independent country of Bangladesh out of the former eastern wing of Pakistan. A comparison of the situation that existed in East Pakistan prior to that fateful day in December 1971 with what is happening today in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) exposes several worrying similarities between the two [1].

Ever since the Pakistan Army ventured into FATA in its quest to uproot the alleged al-Qaeda elements operating there, there have been numerous incidents of civilian casualties. Some of these have come as a result of the army’s operations while others have been the result of increased attacks by missile-equipped Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) operated by the CIA and the U.S. military. The situation in FATA is now growing alarmingly similar to that which prevailed in erstwhile East Pakistan after the March 1971 crackdown by the Pakistan Army. The latest in the spate of such incidents has been the virtual destruction of the town of Spinkai in South Waziristan by the Pakistan Army’s 14th Division, resulting in a large number of casualties and the displacement of over 200,000 people (Dawn [Karachi], May 10).

The unique geographic disposition of the two wings of Pakistan when the country came into being in 1947 saw the two segregated parts growing further apart with the passage of time. Notwithstanding the fact that they outnumbered the West Pakistanis, the inhabitants of East Pakistan were justifiably aggrieved at being treated like second class citizens in a country that they had equally struggled for. Nowhere was this unjust treatment more obvious than in the government services, especially the military. Until as late as 1965, the Pakistan Army had only one battalion from East Pakistan, the East Bengal Regiment (EBR), and even this unit was commanded by a mix of officers from the Eastern and the Western wings of Pakistan [2].

A similar scheme was implemented for the paramilitary forces. Just like the Pakistan Rangers and the Frontier Corps in West Pakistan, the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) was established in East Pakistan. Once again, while the soldiers and other ranks were from East Pakistan, a sizeable number of the regular army officers assigned to the EPR formations came from West Pakistan. The realization that the East Pakistanis were poorly and inadequately represented in the country’s army led to four additional battalions of the East Bengal Regiment being raised immediately after the 1965 war, but this gesture was “too little and too late” [3].

This lack of integration within the military between the personnel from the two wings of the country and the gross disparity in numbers in favor of personnel hailing from West Pakistan were factors that would play a crucial role during the 1971 war. When hostilities broke out, the first action of the Bengali soldiers in the EBR and EPR units was to exterminate their West Pakistani officers and assume control of the weapons and equipment available in their units. From here on, neutralizing other pro-West Pakistan entities and joining hands with the invading Indian Army and the local militants from the Mukti Bahini (the Bengali “Liberation Army”) was basically just a logical progression of events. The specter of the native-dominated Frontier Corps undertaking similar action in FATA is a frightening possibility.

In comparing the situation and the military strategy employed by the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan and that now being employed in FATA, one must not lose sight of the cultural and societal differences between the East Bengali Muslims and the tribal Pashtuns. While the former are a normally docile, hard-working and peace-loving group who seldom resort to militancy and the use of weapons, the latter open their eyes every day in a world that revolves around weapons and militancy. From this perspective, the manner in which the situation was handled in East Pakistan and the way that it is being handled in FATA have to be different in order to be effective. Whereas in East Pakistan, the Pakistani military had trained only a limited number of local inhabitants in the use of weapons and the art of warfare, the adversary in FATA is already well versed in these areas and has experience combat fighting against the Russians during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. As such, the adversary that the Pakistan Army confronts in FATA is a trained and seasoned combatant who also has the significant advantage of belonging to the region and being totally familiar with its topography and terrain. The suspected presence of seasoned foreign militants in this region further compounds the issue.

Traditionally, the role of maintaining security in FATA has been assigned to the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary outfit very similar in composition to the EPR. Like the EPR formations, the entire junior manpower of the Frontier Corps is recruited from local tribesmen with the entire officer cadre coming from the regular Pakistan Army. Since the Pakistan Army’s officer cadre is fairly well integrated at the national level, a sizeable number of these officers hail from provinces other than the NWFP—most notably from the Punjab.

The Frontier Corps is a legacy of British rule. In order to maintain a semblance of control over the hostile and militant natives of this region, the British opted to employ the locals as soldiers and placed British officers in command of these formations. Rather than being an externally focused outfit responding to aggression from across the border, the Frontier Corps was designed more as an internal security force with the prime objective of maintaining law and order in the volatile tribal belt and ensuring the safety of all strategic communication routes (see Terrorism Monitor, March 29, 2007). The deployment and disposition of the Frontier Corps has changed only slightly since the British era. Most of the outposts and garrisons of the Frontier Corps are located in areas through which strategic communication routes pass or in areas where tribesmen could be expected to become unruly and need to be controlled by force.

Ever since Pakistan achieved independence in 1947, successive governments in Islamabad have tended to leave FATA alone, with no concerted efforts being made to integrate this area into Pakistan. This is borne out by the fact that the tribal areas did not have adult franchise until 1996, nor do the Pakistan Police have any authority to enter and operate inside FATA. As was the case during British colonial rule, law and order in the tribal areas continues to be governed by the decades-old Frontier Crimes Regulations, which have yet to be replaced by the Pakistan Penal Code that applies elsewhere throughout the country.

Due to its proximity to Afghanistan and the porous and indefensible nature of the terrain, Pakistan’s tribal belt became the hub of training for the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Apart from leading to the influx of enormous amounts of military hardware and weaponry into the region, this period also led to the arrival of numerous Islamic militants from other parts of the world. Many of these foreigners stayed behind after the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan and assimilated into the local tribes by marrying local women and settling down.

An analysis of the current situation in FATA reveals several stark similarities between what is happening in FATA today and what happened in East Pakistan during the period leading to the creation of Bangladesh:

• Just as East Pakistan had the EPR and the EBR formations manned entirely by locals but commanded by outsiders, the Frontier Corps, which is the main security organ in FATA, is also manned entirely by local manpower at the junior levels but has officers from the Pakistan Army who do not necessarily belong to the same province.

• Similar to the lack of integration among military personnel belonging to East and West Pakistan that was evident in 1971, there have been no efforts to integrate the almost 80,000 local tribesmen who have joined the ranks of the Frontier Corps with the regular Pakistan Army.

• While the Bengali militants found willing supporters across the border in India, the tribesmen of FATA have a strong affinity and cultural, ethnic, social, religious and linguistic ties with the natives inhabiting Afghanistan’s border regions with Pakistan. Though it is understandable that no significant military support might be forthcoming from this quarter as long as U.S. and NATO forces are waging the war against the Taliban inside Afghanistan, logistical support and safe havens / refuge would definitely be available for Pakistani tribesmen fleeing across the border into Afghanistan.

• With the entire Frontier Corps of almost 80,000 local natives commanded by a handful of officers who happen to be outsiders, a recurrence of native troops turning against their officers (as in East Pakistan) is a possibility in FATA.

• Just as the EPR and EBR had their sympathies with the local inhabitants of East Pakistan, the personnel of the Frontier Corps have very strong societal and familial links with the tribesmen of FATA since these personnel belong to the same tribes. This is probably the main reason why so many of these soldiers have opted to surrender to the militants rather than fight against them during the past few months.

• Similar to East Pakistan, where a sizeable number of Hindus with obvious sympathy for neighboring India lived within its territory, the tribal belt has a significant number of foreign Islamic extremist elements who cannot ever contemplate returning to homelands where they have been declared offenders to public order. Having assimilated themselves into the local tribal system of life, these individuals are bound to resist any efforts by Pakistan’s military to actively disrupt the freedom of action that they have become accustomed to.

• Like the situation that prevailed in East Pakistan where the neighboring Indians had never truly reconciled themselves to the creation of Pakistan, the Afghans have also never really accepted the legality of the Durand Line—an arbitrary frontier delineated by the British more than a century ago [4].


It appears that the Pakistan Army has neither learned nor assimilated the lessons of 1971 since it appears to be bent upon repeating the same mistakes. In order to prevent any further break-up of Pakistan it is imperative that these issues be addressed immediately.

The Pakistani government and its military are faced with a difficult scenario in the country’s northwestern regions that border Afghanistan. The geography of this region, its peculiar socio-cultural ethos and the historical traditions of its inhabitants require that the emerging situation in these areas be handled differently. In this context, it would be prudent for the military in Pakistan to review the lessons it learned during the 1971 East Pakistan crisis so as to not repeat the mistakes that led to the defeat of 1971. Whereas FATA’s geographic contiguity with the rest of Pakistan presents an entirely different scenario from what the country was faced with the geographically distinct East Pakistan, it must be considered whether the situation in FATA needs to be handled through the employment of military force or whether other options are available.

Considering that a substantial number of U.S. and NATO troops are likely to remain engaged against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan for at least the foreseeable future, an early return of peace and stability to Pakistan’s tribal areas would have a significant positive impact on anti-Taliban operations in Afghanistan. As such, the achievement of stability in the northwestern territories of Pakistan should be a joint priority for the Pakistani military as well as for the foreign forces engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom inside Afghanistan.

It must also be kept in mind that if Pakistan plans to exploit its access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea by acting as a gateway for the trade of the resource-rich Central Asian states, it is vital that Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas be stabilized as early as possible. Since the opening up of these strategic land trade routes would be beneficial for all the stake holders, it is in everyone’s interest to work toward the goal of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While there is no doubt that fighting the extremist militant elements in FATA is important, as is supporting the global War on Terrorism, Pakistan’s military must contemplate whether these efforts are more important than the very existence of Pakistan as a viable nation-state. Pakistan must, therefore, consider the war against the militant extremists operating from inside FATA as a war for its own existence and stability rather than an operation being undertaken at the behest of the United States and the West. If this conviction is spread within the disillusioned elements of Pakistan’s population, the government might possibly continue the ongoing War against Terrorism in a more efficient, forceful and effective manner.


1. Apart from the author’s personal knowledge and experience of having lived and gained early education in East Pakistan prior to the 1971 creation of Bangladesh, the author’s late father and his father-in-law were both officers in the Pakistan Army and served in various capacities in the EBR and the EPR for over two decades each. As such, this article relies largely on the personal knowledge of the author and his family members.

2. The author’s late father was one of the Company Commanders in No. 1 EBR which served on the Bedian front near Lahore during the 1965 war. Manned entirely by Bengali soldiers, NCOs and JCOs, the unit at that time had a mix of officers from East and West Pakistan.

3. In his last assignment in East Pakistan, the author’s late father served as the Second-in-Command of No. 5 Battalion of the EBR, then stationed in the northern city of Rangpur.

4. See Tariq Mahmud Ashraf, “The Durand Line: Pakistan’s Next Trouble Spot,” Asian Affairs, January 2004.