The FATA-lism of a Pakistani official

The FATA-lism of a Pakistani official

I believe this is unprecedented — the first double-bylined piece in the history of this blog. It is written by two of my CNAS colleagues.

By Sorina Ioana Crisan and Jessica Ramirez
Best Defense FATA bureau chiefs

When you go to hear a senior official from a troubled nation speak in Washington about his particular area of expertise, you hope to get an insider’s understanding, and maybe a sense of what the light might be at the end of his particular tunnel. That’s what we had in mind when we trundled over last week to Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies to hear the word from Habibullah Khan, current head of the secretariat for Northwest Pakistan’s semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, AKA one of the world’s stickiest problems.

Instead we got a 50-minute soft-shoe that dodged questions and offered few answers. His talk consisted of a presentation that presented an overview of Wikipedia-ish issues as the formation of FATA, its geography, economy, and society. Khan’s bottom line: The best hope for long-term change will require a "long-term U.S. commitment, not in the form of money, but in the shape of a long-term engagement." In other words, he said, the U.S. needs to fulfill the commitments it signed up for back in 2002.

Our view: Hey, Mr. Khan, this is a two-way street. What has Pakistan really done to bring security to the FATA over the last nine years? And hopes for increased military support in the region have been washed away with the latest floods. Violent religious extremists continue to maintain a strong foothold in the region, and are said to be quicker in providing humanitarian services in the flood-affected tribal areas than the government.

When asked what incentives could be offered to break up alliances between locals and bad actors such as the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qa’ida and the Haqqani network, Khan could only offer a long convoluted answer that left the audience deeply unsatisfied. The gist of his answer was to offer full protection to pro-government people and individuals who joined out of fear, while targeting the militants. Further dissatisfaction ensued when he offered a plain "no comment" when answering a question addressing the influence of the latest drone attacks on the relationship between FATA, Pakistan, and the United States. Khan also refused to address the consequences of the attacks on civilian security. He underlined that he does not have the authority to comment on these specific issues as he is only focusing on aspects linked to governance and development.

It would have been useful and refreshing to hear Khan’s genuine and honest opinion on how the political, economic, and security situation in FATA could be improved or negatively affected in the short and long terms. In the end, what was delivered was a beautifully articulated yet deeply unsatisfying picture of the many obstacles that face the region, and few suggestions about how to tackle them. Perhaps the lack of clear and concise answers was a consequence of the fact that not even Khan has a clear view of how a "positive" scenario could actually look like for FATA.

Leaving this presentation we felt disappointed and desirous of a change in the status quo. It would be unfortunate if this is the best Pakistan can do. If it is, we need to consider a very different policy. As Robert De Niro would say, "These guys got nothing."