November 20, 2007

November 20, 2007 | Commentary on Europe

The Tribal Option: Lessons Learned in Iraq Might Help in Pakistan

The US Special Operations Command is considering a forward-leaning plan to aid and train Pakistani tribes for operations against both al Qaeda and the Taliban that have found safe haven along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

It's a great idea, but it's easier said than done.

The publicly leaked details of the plan indicate it's at least partly modeled on the operation in Anbar province and other parts of Iraq - where US forces (in close cooperation with Iraqi military and police) have persuaded local Sunni tribes to take up arms against al Qaeda.

Other changes in the US approach (such as the surge) were vital, too, but the "Anbar awakening" is a big reason al Qaeda in Iraq has collapsed.

Indeed, the US military reported over the weekend a 55 percent drop in attacks over the last nine months, falling to the lowest level since the summer of 2005. Iraqi civilian casualties are down 60 percent since June and are down 75 percent in Baghdad.

The Iraq tribal operation makes both strategic and tactical sense: The locals - not US forces - do most of the fighting; the tribes have better on-the-street intelligence, knowing the language and culture, which facilitates picking out the bad guys.

It certainly makes sense to learn from the success of the Iraq tribal operation, and even to apply those lessons to Pakistan. But the model will need a lot of customizing.

In Iraq, al Qaeda is largely a foreign operation - and its years of indiscriminate violence against the locals had a lot to do with the sheiks (who had sheltered and aided the terrorists) switching sides. By contrast, the Taliban (and, to a lesser extent, al Qaeda) are generally among kith and kin in Pakistan's tribal regions.

For that reason and more, the "guests" haven't caused the same bloodshed among their "hosts" as al Qaeda has in Iraq; generally, they've coexisted peacefully.

So recruiting members of these tribes to really take the fight to al Qaeda and the Taliban isn't going to be a cinch. We're going to have to find a strong, enduring motivation (other than cold, hard cash) for the tribes to oppose our enemies.

To date, the ethnically Pashtun tribes of the Pakistani tribal areas have supported the largely Pashtun Taliban, providing staging grounds for their Afghan operations.

Al Qaeda is quite popular there, too. A recent poll for the group Terror Free Tomorrow found that Osama bin Laden has a 70 percent favorability rating in the Northwest Frontier Province and other Pakistani tribal areas (not so coincidently, where US intelligence believes he is now holed up).

The publicity about any US-led or -supported operation won't help. Polls show there is no support for any US military action against these groups; Pakistanis see the War on Terror as America's problem - not theirs.

In fact, it's likely that the exposure of the operation will send the al Qaeda and Taliban propaganda machines into overdrive, seeking to shame any tribesman out of joining Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf or any other "infidels." Moreover, with Musharraf on the political ropes after nearly a month of emergency rule, doing anything in Pakistan will be tough.

As best we can, we'll also continue to pursue other means to counter the Taliban and al Qaeda in these areas, such as bolstering the Pakistani army's counterterror capability. But that hasn't worked well to date: The Pakistani army has lost more than 1,000 soldiers campaigning in the area - and the newly formed Frontier Corps, which has some tribal members, hasn't racked up many successes yet, either.

In the end, we've got a lot at stake in Pakistan - including dousing the fires of extremism, and preventing Islamabad's nuclear arsenal from falling into radicals' hands. A tribal operation can't help us with those goals directly.

But we do need to undermine the Taliban's operations in Afghanistan and kill off al Qaeda. And, for the moment, our best military option for achieving those objectives may be working with the tribes in some new capacity.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Europe

First appeared in the New York Post