March 6, 2008 | Op-ed
Taliban Defeat in North-West Frontier?
This article originally appeared in the Middle East Times.
To some commentators, the results of Pakistan's Feb. 18 elections in its restive North-West Frontier Province appear to be a significant strategic victory for the United States.
Lisa Curtis, a research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, wrote that “[p]erhaps the most important outcome” of Pakistan's elections “was the victory of a secular Pashtun party in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) over religious parties sympathetic to the Taliban.” Former NWFP government official Mahmood Shah told McClatchy Newspapers that officials there would now “become more willing to cooperate with Afghanistan in suppressing Islamic militants.” And the Christian Science Monitor declared that the victorious Awami National Party (ANP) is “expected to marshal all the province's resources – police, politics, and the law – against extremism.”
But, there is reason to question whether the significance of the results is being overstated.
The Decline of the Islamist Parties
The turnaround in the NWFP elections was indeed dramatic. In the 2002 general election, religious parties won 67 seats in the 99-seat provincial assembly. In 2008, they won only nine seats.
Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the American University and Pakistan's former high commissioner to Great Britain, told me that prior to 2002 the NWFP showed a consistent political balance between religious parties, nationalist parties, the Pakistan Muslim League, and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). That changed in 2002, when Islamist parties dominated the NWFP elections, riding a wave of public outrage over the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the impression that the United States was engaged in a war against Islam.
But the Islamist parties did not live up to their promises. Violence spiraled in the tribal areas under their watch, and the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal party failed to deliver with respect to such basics as infrastructure and education. Many citizens were also upset by extreme social measures like the banning of theatrical performances and billboards depicting women.
These factors contributed to the religious parties' defeat in the NWFP polls, with the Awami National Party (ANP) and PPP emerging as the two big winners. The ANP captured 10 of the province's 35 National Assembly seats, while the PPP won nine. The ANP did even better in the provincial assembly elections: it won 30 seats, while the PPP captured 11.
Are There Strategic Implications?
What does the success of these parties say about the battle against militancy in Pakistan's tribal areas? There are four reasons to believe that some commentators are overstating the elections' strategic significance.
First, there is already concern in Washington about the approach the winning parties are planning to adopt vis-à-vis the Taliban. Farhana Ali, an associate international policy analyst at the RAND Corporation who recently returned from a 10-day trip to Pakistan, told me that many Pakistanis are fatigued by this war. “They see it as America's war,” she said, “but there is a new strand of thought emerging that the Pakistanis need to choose their own strategies.” One such strategy that worries many Washington analysts is the new coalition's willingness to negotiate with the Taliban.
The RAND Corporation's Seth Jones told me, “There is a strong desire among even the secular parties to engage in dialogue with militant groups. From a strategic perspective, I don't see this as a major win for the United States.”
Second, violence may interrupt any kind of political change. There have been at least three major attacks in the NWFP during the past week, including an attack on a jirga (tribal gathering) in the frontier town of Darra Adamkhel – flouting religious militants' traditional practice of leaving such gatherings untouched by violence. “If law and order is not quickly established,” Akbar Ahmed told me, “things will degenerate.”
Third, there is a question about how serious the ANP is about combating the Taliban. Ahmed said that while the PPP is “structurally opposed” to the Taliban, nationalist parties are not. “The nationalist parties are as pro-Taliban as the mullahs,” he argued, pointing to their shared Pashtun ethnicity. “Commentators saying this is a loss for the Taliban and al-Qaida are so off that it's embarrassing. The ANP are Pashtun nationalists.”
Ali has a different perspective than Ahmed on the matter. She spoke with several ANP members during her recent travels through Pakistan, and says, “They certainly were against the militants.”
Finally, there are also questions about the practical impact of the elections. One of the major reasons the United States has had a strategic problem with militants in Pakistan is that they effectively control certain portions of the tribal areas due to their force of arms. After attempted assassinations against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf – most notably two bombings within a two-week period in December 2003 – he tried to flush militants out of the tribal areas. Musharraf was unable to do so, and lost a large number of soldiers in the process.
Quite simply, elections will not remove these safe havens. “Regardless of who won the elections,” Jones said, “there are still entrenched militant groups. When you control territory and can intimidate the population, nothing changes. There is deep reluctance among all major parties to conduct sustained operations against them. That creates some strategic issues for the U.S.”
The dramatic turnaround in the NWFP's elections is a positive development, one that contains some important lessons. But it is important not to overstate its strategic implications, and to be circumspect in the challenges that remain.