How to Develop the Afghanistan – Pakistan Tribal Belts?

Print Friendly


Shahid Javed Burki[1]


(The Taliban regime which established control over most of Afghanistan from 1996-2001 sought to restore peace to that troubled country which had degenerated into warlord zones. Their harsh rule, typified by the imposition of their own understanding of Islam, was inward looking. Should the “resurgent Taliban” succeed in establishing themselves in even a few parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the fallout would be dangerous. In the words of the author, their “focus would primarily be on what the most radicalized components of radical Islam see as the ultimate cause: an all out jihad against the West.” To preempt such an eventuality, it is essential to promote economic and social development in the epicenter of the insurgency namely, Pakhtun areas.  Editor.)


This study aims to disentangle some of the elements in the evolving situation in the areas along the long Afghanistan-Pakistan border.  These areas have once again begun to draw the attention of the international community.  Several different strategies are being proposed – and some are being followed – to deal with the insurgents who are fanning out from these areas.  They are challenging the forces deployed by the United States and NATO to aid the Afghan government in its attempt to curb the renewal of violence in their long-troubled country.  Given the experience with Al Qaeda in the 1990s that culminated in the terrorist attacks on America on 11 September 2001, it is clear that the rapidly deteriorating situation in southern Afghanistan and some of the areas in Pakistan that border Afghanistan poses a serious threat to the rest of the world.  It needs to be addressed.

This paper develops two interlocking themes.  It suggests that the growing unrest in the areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border is the result of a combination of several developments.  A 2005 World Bank report prepared for the second major international conference to obtain pledges for the rebuilding of Afghanistan states:  “sources of insecurity are complex ranging from anti-government groups linked to the former Taliban regime, groups linked to Al-Qaeda, remnants of militias allied to commanders, and criminal groups often associated with the narcotics trade.”[i] It is important to draw distinctions between the various groups who are becoming increasingly restive.  To apply epithets such as the “resurgent Taliban” or the “re-energized Al-Qaeda” to the people at the center of the growing turmoil is to confuse the picture.  This way of labeling the disaffected does not help to understand the dynamics of the problem and does not help to find the right strategy to deal with it.

The second theme builds on the differences among the various ethnic groups in the country.  This theme is used to develop a strategy that is likely to be more successful than the approaches being currently tried.  This paper will suggest that in addressing the developing problem, the West along with Afghanistan and Pakistan, must concentrate a good deal of their collective attention on the economic, social and ultimately the political development of the areas that are now becoming the center of a new conflict.  The use of force alone – or greater emphasis on it – than on development won’t produce the desired results.  And, while focusing on these areas, it is important to recognize that they are inhabited by the Pakhtun tribal people who trace their valued traditions to pre-Islamic days.  Social capital, as economists have recently discovered, is an important contributor to economic development and growth.  There is some social capital present in the Pakhtun tribal belt along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.  It should be put to use to improve economic conditions in these areas.

This paper has five parts in addition to this introduction and a conclusion.  The first provides a quick overview of the economic performance of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the early 2000s followed, in the second section, by a description of the Pakhtuns and the areas generally referred to as the “tribal belt” – in which the members of this ethnic group live.  This belt straddles the 1500 miles long border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The third section briefly discusses the relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last 60 years – from 1947, when Pakistan became an independent state, to the present.  The fourth section is an overview of the current situation as seen by the West.  The fifth proposes a plan of economic and social development that will treat the tribal belt as a contiguous and socially homogenous area in the throes of a great deal of chaos, confusion and turmoil.  This section will also provide some ideas on how the international community could work together to bring comprehensive development to the tribal belt.

1.         The Afghan and Pakistani Economies and the Pakhtun Tribal Belt

Afghanistan: An often quoted study from Louis Dupree in 1980 said that statistics in Afghanistan are “wild guesses based on inadequate data.”  Because of the poverty of data, it is not possible to accurately describe Afghanistan’s current economic situation and its recent economic history.  Nonetheless, some rough guess-estimate can be made.  For instance a report issued by the World Bank in 2004 identified five episodes of growth in the country since the 1960s.[ii]

The country started at a level of per capita GDP similar to that of other developing countries in the 1960s.  However, with GDP growth of only 2 percent in real terms, income per capita declined and there was a significant increase in the incidence of poverty.  During the second period, the first part of the 1970s, there was a slight increase in per capita income.  In the third period – the 1980s – growth fluctuated in the early part of the decade and became sharply negative in the latter part as the war against the Soviet Union’s occupation of the country grained momentum.  The fourth period in the 1990s is the least documented.  This period can be divided into two sub-periods.  From 1992 to 1995, the civil war led to a further fragmentation of the country.  Growth was higher in the areas around Mazar-e-Sharif in the north and around Kandahar in the west where local authorities were strong enough to maintain stability, and trade with Central Asia and Iran stimulated economic activity.  The Pakhtun provinces did not see any growth in this period.  From 1995 to 2001, the Taliban regime maintained a higher degree of control on the country resulting in some growth and some improvements in the quality of life of the very poor, particularly in the Pakhtun belt.  Since 2001, the government headed by President Hamid Karzai is attempting economic reconstruction with donor support.  With the end of a four year long drought in 2002, the economy in 2002-03 grew by an estimated 28.6 percent after contracting by 9 percent in 2001.  It continued to increase after that large bounce, growing by 16 percent in 2003-04 and 8 percent in 2004-05.  The World Bank and the IMF expect the economy to expand by 8-10 percent a year for the next two to three years.   (See Table 1.)

In 2002, the size of the economy was estimated at $4 billion (in that year’s prices) and income per head at $186. Since 1975, the country had added 8 million people to its then population of 14 million.  The size of the economy grew to $7.3 billion by 2005-06, an increase of 78 percent in current terms over the three year period following the beginning of recovery.  The structure of the economy also changed significantly with the share of agriculture declining by 15 percentage points with a corresponding increase in the sector of services.  (See Table 2 below.)

Table 1:  Afghanistan:  Growth in Gross Domestic Product

Level (current $ million)
1975 2002-03 2003-04 2004-05 2005-06
Agriculture 1,196 2,105
Industry 373 976
Services 798 967
Total 2,367 4,084 4,585 5,971 7,282
Population (m) 14.0 21.8
GDP per capita 169 182 199 253 299
Read GDP growth 28.6 15.7 8.0 14.0

Source:  Stephanie Guimbut, Structure and Performance of the Afghan Economy, The World Bank, 2004, p. 2, and the source for Table 2.

Table 2:  Structure of the Economy

GDP Structure (% of total)
1975 2002 2004
51 52 37
16 24 24
34 24 38
100 100 99

Source:  The World Bank, Interim Strategy Note for Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, 2006.

While the aggregate economic statistics suggest significant improvement in the situation since the end of the Taliban regime, three facts about the state of the economy need to be underscored.  One, poppy cultivation and trade in poppy products has made a significant contribution to economic recovery.  Afghanistan is now the source of 90 percent of the heroin sold on the streets of Europe and the United States.  Opium use has also penetrated the societies of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  “Opium GDP” is estimated by the United Nations and some experts at 2.6-2.7 percent of total “drug-inclusive” GDP and 36 percent of the licit GDP of Afghanistan.  It is now the major source of income and employment for the people in the Pakhtun belt.

Two, the benefits of economic recovery and growth have been highly skewed.  Most of the benefits have been captured by the people living in and around Kabul or in the northern areas contiguous with the states of Central Asia.  With benefits seen from the perspective of various ethnic groups, the Tajiks have been the principal beneficiaries while the Pakhtuns have gained the least.  Savings are almost non-existent in the Pakhtun belt and people are augmenting their meager incomes by selling their assets. According to the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, average family debt is now four times the household income.  This is one of the major reasons for discontent against the government and the NATO forces.

Third, not-counting the contribution made by the cultivation, handling and processing of poppy, growth in the formal economy has not produced a significant number of jobs, particularly for the young.  Unemployment is very high, at 33 percent of the working age population by the government’s own estimates.  Of those who have jobs, only 13.5 percent receive a steady and secure stream of income.  The situation is particularly severe in the Pakhtun provinces.

How to sustain economic growth which was a consequence of recovery from a long period of stagnation during the period of pronounced political turmoil?  That economies sharply rebound once conflict subsides has been the experience of most post-conflict societies.  For growth to be sustained beyond the period of recovery – and for growth to rely on legal rather illegal activities – requires a carefully articulated strategy that incorporates the need to accommodate the groups involved in insurgency.  That this should be done was recognized by the international community that first removed the Taliban from power and then assumed the task of rebuilding the war-torn nation.  But the efforts made did not prove equal to the task, particularly in the Pakhtun areas.

This model of political development and economic revival supported by the international community had two parts. In the first the emphasis was on creating a viable political structure in the country.  This was the focus of the international meeting at Bonn in 2002 that placed Hamid Karzai, a Pakhtun politician, in power as president and laid the ground for the convening of a national assembly (the shura), writing a new constitution, and holding a new set of elections to the national assembly and for choosing a president.  These steps were taken on time.  These steps constituted impressive development in a country that had seen so much political chaos for so long. This set the stage for the second step in building a viable Afghan nation-state by setting the economy on the path of sustained development over a longer period of time.  That was the aim of the second major international conference held in London in January 2006.

A detailed agenda for reconstruction and development was agreed to at the London meeting.  Titled the “Afghanistan Compact,” it provided 27 benchmarks to be achieved within the next five years.  The compact was built around three pillars:  (i) Security; (ii) Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights; and (iii) Economic and Social Development.  The strategy provided a vision of development based on private-sector-led growth supported by a lean state which would use the budget as its key policy instrument and aid coordination tool.  However, missing from the strategy was a regional development component directed explicitly at the Pakhtun tribal belt that borders on Pakistan.  This was a surprising and telling omission reflecting the absence of a strong  political voice for the Pakhtun tribal belt in the corridors of power in Kabul.  This paper attempts to fill the gap by adding a regional development component to the strategy.

Pakistan: We need not discuss at length Pakistan’s economic situation since more is known about it than is the case for the Afghan economy. A report issued in May 2008 by the Lahore-based Institute of Public Policy provided details about the current economic situation in the country and suggested some measures for addressing the problems Pakistan faces.[iii] For our purpose we need to refer to some salient features that affect the region being studied in this paper.

The Pakistani economy grew rapidly from 2003 to 2007.  By 2003, the country had completed the IMF funded program to stabilize the economy and to set the stage for a high rate of growth.  In the 2003-07 period, Pakistan’s GDP increased at an annual average rate of 7 percent.  However, the Pakhtun areas made up of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and parts of Balochistan province, grew at a considerably slower rate.  This was in part because of the poor physical and human endowment of these areas.  A rate of growth slower than the regions of the country contributed to the migration of even more people to the more develped parts of Pakistan, in particular the mega-city of Karachi.  It also resulted in increasing the incidence of   joblessness and poverty.  The Pakhtun areas are now amongst the poorest in Pakistan.  (See Table 3 below.)

The economic turmoil confronting Pakistan since the end of 2007 has further exacerbated the situation in the Pakhtun areas which rely on remittances from Pakhtuns working in the major cities or have gone to the Middle East. The resultant slow down and economic disruption is contributing to the growing disaffection and is undoubtedly facilitating the recruitment efforts of the insurgent groups.

Table 3:  Regional Disparities:  The Case of the Tribal Belt

Pakistan NWFP FATA
Irrigated area as % of cultivated area 82.00 52.00 40.00
Cultivated area as % of total area 37.21 30.09 17.42
Literacy rate % in 1998 45.00 37.30 17.42
Male 56.50 52.80 29.50
Female 32.60 21.10 3.00
Primary enrollment rate (%) 86.00 81.00 38.00
Population/Doctors 1404 5054 7670
Population/Bed 1737 1594 2290

Source:  Power point presentation provided by the Embassy of Pakistan, Washington, D.C.

2.         The Pakhtuns and the Tribal Belts

Pakhtuns (also Pashtuns, Pathans) are an ethno-linguistic group, characterized by the use of a common language, Pashto, and adherence to Pakhtunwali, a pre-Islamic indigenous code of honor and culture.  According to a legend, they embraced Islam following conversion to that religion by Qais Abdur Rashid who is said to have met the Prophet Muhammed in Mecca.  Rashid had four sons who migrated in four different directions toward Swat, Lahore, Multan and Quetta.  They carried with them the religion of Islam and Pukhtunwali, the community’s code of honor.

More is known about the make up of the Pakhtun tribal society – its code of behavior and its system of values – than about the economy of the areas in which these people live.  Much of the information comes from the writings of dozens of British administrators who worked on the Pakistani side of the tribal area.  They left behind in books, pamphlets and articles detailed descriptions about the way the Pakhtun society was organized.  Its reputation for cohesion is not because of a strong Pakhtun identity but because of the strong commitment to the various clans and tribes into which the community is divided.  There are half a dozen large tribes into which the 40 million or so Pakhtuns are divided.  Most of the major tribes have presence on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. It is from the largest of these, the Durranis, that several Afghan monarchs of the previous centuries came.  President Hamid Karzai, is also a Durrani as was the NWFP chief minister and the federal information minister during the Pervez Musharraf presidency.  The Durranis are divided into several large clans of which the Popalzai, Barakzai, Alizai, Achakzai, and Alikozai are the most prominent.  The tribe has some 7 million people of whom five million are in Afghanistan and two million in Pakistan.  This is the most urbanized and educated of the Pakhtun tribes.  They live in the region west and southeast of Kandahar.

The second largest Pakhtun tribe is the Ghilzai.  They live in the region between Kandahar and Ghazni.  Population estimates vary but they number about six million, equally divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Most Ghilzais work as herders as well as in construction and other jobs that allows them to travel.  Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader and head of the short-lived Taliban regime, belongs to this tribe.  The Afridis and the Zakars are two other large tribes.

The point of this brief reference to the tribal structure of the Pakhtun population is to emphasize why it is important to view the areas in which these people live as ethnically and socially cohesive. Although straddling across an international border between two independent and sovereign nations – Afghanistan and Pakistan – what happens to one segment of the population profoundly affects the other. This is one reason why any program of economic development should encompass the entire Pakhtun belt – this is one of the main themes developed in this study.

Before detailing an altogether different strategy that might work in the tribal belts in Afghanistan and Pakistan that straddle the 1893 Durand Line, we should first develop a better understanding of these areas.  There has been no population census in Afghanistan for several decades.  It is therefore not known with any certainty as to how many people live in the country.  In 2008, it would not be too far off the mark to say that the country has 37 million people.  On the other side of the border, Pakistan has about 163 million people.  Between 2 to 3 million Afghan refugees – mostly Pakhtun but some Tajiks and Uzbeks as well – have been living in Pakistan.  Not all of them are in the refugee camps that were built near the cities on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan.  Together, therefore, Afghanistan and Pakistan have a population of 200 million.  How many of these are Pakhtuns?

Pakistan’s censuses don’t define people by their ethnicity.  That notwithstanding, it is generally assumed that some 15 percent of the country’s population belongs to this ethnic group.  This means about 25 million Pakhtuns live in Pakistan.  More than two-fifths of the Afghan population is said to be made up of this ethnic group – this means about 14-15 million Pakhtuns live in that country.  Pakistan, therefore, has almost twice as many Pakhtuns as does Afghanistan.

The Taliban that emerged from the areas on the Pakistani side of the border from the hundreds of madrassas were all Pakhtun.  The madrassas from which they came – where they were Taliban or students – were mostly established with the help of Saudi Arabian funds.  Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) of Pakistan, trained the students to become mujahideen, the freedom fighters. The forces that emerged from these seminaries were the product of a four-way association between three states and one group of people:  Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the United States.  The Pakhtuns were the people in the middle of this enterprise.[iv]

The Pakhtuns are among the world’s most restless people; the restlessness is produced in part by the difficult economic conditions that exist in the areas in which they live.  The Pakhtun population in Pakistan is fairly widely dispersed.  Karachi, with an estimated Pakhtun population of 3 million, has the largest number of Pakhtuns in the world, larger than Kabul, Kandahar, Peshawar and Quetta.  While 40 million Pakhtuns live in Pakistan and Afghanistan, there are millions more in India, the Middle East, Britain and North America.  The Pakhtun diasporas retain strong links with the homeland, sending substantial remittances – perhaps as much as $2 billion a year – to their dependents. This implies that they are certainly not as insular and ill-informed about global events as is erroneously presumed.

The British during their rule in India, tried to bring the Pakhtuns under their administrative control.  The Afghan wars they waged in the nineteenth century failed to achieve this objective. In 1893 they persuaded Amir Abdur Rahman Khan, then king of Afghanistan, to accept a line they drew on the map that left more Pakhtuns on the Indian side of the border than in Afghanistan.  This is the Durand Line that still constitutes the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.  According to the historian Vartan Gregorian, “the Durand Line divided the allegiance of many tribes, without regard to the ethnography of the region.  It demarcated a no-man’s land, which became a haven for tribal chieftains and sometimes even for entire clans.  Moreover, though the agreement pushed the British forward line to modify the basic features of tribal life or to set up some kind of permanent tribal authority that might in turn have affected the position of tribes in Afghanistan.”[v] It is this “haven” that is now the root of insurgency threatening not only peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan but in rest of the world as well.

On what is now the Pakistani side of the border, the British divided the Pakhtun lands into two parts:  the settled areas and the tribal areas.  The settled areas were administered like all other parts of the British domain, by district officers who had wide administrative, magisterial and financial powers.  The legal and judicial systems followed those the British had introduced in other posts of their Indian domain and were based on common law.  In the tribal areas, the British left administration in the hands of tribal maliks (chief is not a good translation of the word malik since, traditionally, maliks’ powers are constrained by the presence of a jirga – a consultative body of elders) who used tribal laws to provide governance.  These laws – like most tribal laws – allowed considerable autonomy to the people as long as they observed the traditions that governed relations between households, within households, and with respect to land, the only economic asset available to the people.  This system worked well for the British.  It was recognized that any serious digression would be punished by the authorities.  If punishment was meted out it was usually followed by cash compensation. The British retained a lose control of these areas by the use of force applied by “levees” whose members were recruited from among the tribal people.  It was also a tradition that each show of authority by the state would be followed by monetary compensation. Some of these levees were incorporated in the Frontier Corps which to some extent is spearheading the campaign against the insurgent groups.

When Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the 1940s demanded the creation of Pakistan, it was not certain that even if his demand was accepted the new Muslim state he wished to create would include the tribal belt or even the NWFP. Jinnah agreed to a plebiscite in the NWFP which he handily won. He also agreed to the demands put forward by the tribal maliks. The tribes agreed to join Pakistan provided the central government did not disturb the arrangement the British had maintained during their almost century long presence in the area.  Jinnah accepted the condition and the tribal areas became parts of Pakistan.

For the purpose of this study, we define the tribal belts on either side of the Afghan-Pakistan border as made up of 10 Afghan provinces with a total population of 5 million people (Table 4), and seven tribal agencies in Pakistan with a population of 3 million people (Table 5).  It is not customary to regard the northern provinces of Nurestan, Kunar and Nangarhar as belonging to the Pakhtun belt since they have a large presence of other ethnic groups, have a significant number of Shias in their population and are at some distance from Pakistan’s Pakhtun belt.  But that is a mistake since they too have strong Pakhtun characteristics.  Not much information is available about the belt on the Afghan side of the border other than rough estimates of population.  In fact, for two provinces in the north – Nurestan and Kunar – even population estimates have not been made.  Much greater information is available for the Pakistani areas.  These show very low level of literacy; much lower for women than for men.  Male literacy rates range between 23 percent for the Khyber agency and only 10.5 percent for Orakzai agency.  The highest female literacy rate is in Kurram agency (only 4.5 percent) with the lowest, once again, in Orakzai (1.3 percent).  It is safe to assume that the literacy levels are even lower in the bordering areas of Afghanistan.

Table 4:  The Afghan Tribal Belt

Province Area (sq Km) Population Density (persons per sq Km) Language
Nurestan Pashto
Kunar Nuristan
Nangarhar 7,727 1,089,000 141.1 Pashto
Paktia 6,432 415,000 64.5 Pashto
Khost 4,152 300,000 72/2 Pashto
Paktika 19,482 352,000 18.1 Pashto
Zabol 17,343 366,000 21.2 Pashto
Kandahar 54,022 886,000 16.4 Pashto
Helmand 58,584 1,012,000 17.2 Pashto, Balochi
Nimruz 41,005 149,000 17.3 Pashto, Balochi
Total 208,747 4,569,000 21.9

Source:  Statistics from various government sources.

Table 5 below provides some basic data on the seven “agencies” that make up the Pakhtun tribal belt on the Pakistani side of the border.

Table 5:  Pakistan’s Tribal Agencies

Khyber 1/ Mohamand 2/ Bajaur 3/ Orakzai 4/ Kurram 5/ North Waziristan 6/ South Waziristan 7/ Total
Established 1879 1951 1973 1973 1892 1910 1896
Area (Sq/Km) 2578 2296 1296 1538 3380 4707 6620 17,541
Population 535,000 332,000 597,000 225,000 448,000 361,000 430,000 2,928,000
Population growth 3.9% 4.2% 4.4% -2.2% 2.5% 2.5% 2.0% 3.9%
Irrigated (Ha) 11,000
Literacy 23% 11.3% 13.4% 10.5% 19.8% 15.9% 19.8% 16.5%
Male 39.9% 19.1% 22.3% 19.7% 33.3% 26.8% 32.5% 32.8%
Female 2.6% 1.9% 3.4% 1.3% 4.5% 1.5% 2.6% 2.2%
Nurses 20,000 69,000 80,774 22,126 16,322 20,837
Doctors 8,800 6,410 11,820 4,406 6,085 5,087 4,825
Bed 2,303 2,828 6,348 1,923 1,790 1,180 3,396
Roads (Km) 463 388 443 489 557 439 752 3,531
Area (Ha) 268,000 230,000 129,000 154,000 338,000 471,000 662,000 2,252,000
Cultivated 15,000 18,000 74,000 11,000 22,000 13,000 16,000 169,000
Forest 2,000 3,000 5,000 2,000 13,000 11,000 2,000 38,000
Land use ___ 20.3% 97.4% 91.7% 95.7% 86.7%
Drinking water 72.5% 55.7% 68.8% 80.5% 41.8%

Source:  Data provided by the Pakistan Embassy, Washington, D.C.

Notes on Table 5.

1/         Khyber has the Mullagori marble deposit, one of the largest in the world.

2/         Extensive marble, dolomite, jade and serpentinite.  Large outmigration to the Middle East and other parts of Pakistan.  Remittances are a major source of income.  Ranks the lowest in terms of development among the seven agencies.  The agency is 100% rural.

3/         Has 25 camps of Afghan refugees.  Large marble and granite deposits.

4/         Extensive migration to the Gulf and also to other parts of Pakistan.  Has large coal deposits.

5/         Extensive deposits of marble and precious stones.

6/         The Agency has large copper deposits.

While agriculture is the main source of income for the two belts, only a small fraction of the available land is cultivated.  For the tribal agencies in Pakistan, only 17 percent of the land is under cultivation, some of which is irrigated.  Farmers depend mostly on rainfall which is not enough to permit intensive cultivation and varies considerably from year to year.  A very large number of people are pastoral, depending upon animal husbandry.  They move their animals to where fodder is available.  Afghan nomads move in large numbers to the Pakistani side of the border where winters are less severe.  Both governments permit this movement of people with crossings made at many un-patrolled border points. These crossings were a regular feature of life not only in the settled areas of the NWFP but also in northern Punjab before they were disrupted by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the conflicts that followed.

Here it would be helpful to briefly recall the history of Southern Afghanistan, dominated for centuries by fiercely independent Pakhtun tribes.  These tribes are Sunnis and have always been distrustful of the Shias.  They value their autonomy.  It was the attempt by the Afghan central government in 1978 to extend the authority of Kabul over the provinces that provoked a rebellion against the central authority.  Kabul took that position under the pressure of the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union sent in its troops to bring order to the country, and the rest, as they say, is history.  If the southern provinces gain functioning autonomy and if the Sunni resentment increases in Iraq it will boil over to this part of Afghanistan.  And if the re-energized Sunni tribes in Afghanistan’s south determine that their co-religionists have suffered enormously at the hands of the West – in particular the United States – they will direct their resentment towards these countries.

In sum the Pakhtun belt that Afghanistan and Pakistan share presents a unique problem to the international community.  It straddles a difficult, inhospitable, extremely under-developed terrain.  It is inhabited by people who have preferred to be guided by an ancient code of behavior rather than by laws made by modern states for modern times.  To this code that has existed even before Islam entered the area, they have added some aspects of the Islamic law, the Sharia.  The combination of these two codes has produced a way of life that has been practiced for centuries.  Among its many features the strongest are an abhorrence to accept outside interference in internal affairs, an equal amount of reluctance to be governed by a central authority that operates from a distant place, and confidence in the ability of local leaders to provide protection to their communities and to provide an environment in which they can live according to their own laws and practices.  The religion they have accepted and followed fuses Islam with the Sufistic tradition.  The latter believes in using music, poetry and dance to celebrate great affection for the deity (Allah) and his messenger (the Prophet Muhammed).  The Pakhtuns have followed these traditions for centuries even when they were on the move.

3.         Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations

It bothered Kabul that the British left the successor state of Pakistan with the Durand Line as its northern border.  It argued that the Durand Line was an arrangement with the British and not with any successor state that replaced their domain.  For several months, Kabul withheld recognition from Pakistan.  In fact, Afghanistan was the only country to oppose the entry of Pakistan into the United Nations.

For three decades, Afghanistan promoted the creation of Pukhtunistan in Pakistan, a geographic entity that would include the Pakhtun population in that country.  The concept behind that proposition was never fully defined.  Would Pukhtunistan be a province in Pakistan?  Would it be linked with the Pakhtun areas of Afghanistan to become an autonomous state sitting alongside multi-ethnic states of Afghanistan and Pakistan; or would it be merged with Afghanistan?  Without being totally clear as to what it was seeking, Kabul kept the Pukhtunistan issue alive until the Soviet Union chose to invade the country in December 1979.  When Pakistan became deeply involved in the multinational effort to evict the Soviet forces from Afghanistan, the Pukhtunistan issue gradually faded away.  However, Pakistan was now involved in the political life of its northern neighbor, reversing the nature of relations between the two countries.  Previously Kabul had meddled in what Pakistan called its internal affairs. Now Pakistan was actively involved in Afghan politics.

It played favorites in choosing the mujahideen groups that the United States was aiding to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. It preferred the Pakhtun groups over those from the northern areas, in particular those dominated by the Tajiks and the Uzbeks. This alienated Ahamd Shah Masoud the charismatic Tajik leader who had developed strong relations with the United States as well as India.[vi] When the Soviet Union departed from the country, Pakistan, acting through its intelligence agency, the ISI, attempted to have the Pakhtuns – in particular the group headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – to take over Kabul.  When that did not succeed, Pakistan helped the creation of the Taliban, a group assembled from the graduates of the seminaries established for the Afghan refugees on the Pakistani side of the border. The Taliban, with active assistance from Pakistan, were able to establish their control over the entire Afghan territory except a small sliver of land in the north that remained with Ahmad Shah Masoud’s Northern Alliance. The Northern Alliance was to become a pivotal force in the American invasion of Afghanistan in October-December 2001.

The system the Taliban imposed on the country was highly primitive; based on an interpretation of Islam that was endorsed by Saudi Arabia’s Wahabis. It allowed no role to women outside their homes; it mandated cruel and barbaric punishments even for petty crimes; it declared the Wahabi-Sunni doctrine to be the state religion; it declared religious minorities to be second class citizens; and it destroyed symbols of other religions even if they were Afghanistan’s highly treasured reminders of the country’s past, such as the statues of Budha at Bamiyan. Shunned by the world – the regime won recognition from only three countries, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – the Taliban welcomed the support of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, in turn, used the sanctuaries it obtained to train its foot soldiers and mount attacks on the United States’ assets around the globe, ultimately resulting in 9/11.

The Americans fought the war against the Taliban with the help of the Tajik dominated Northern Alliance.  In spite of the Bonn accord that brought in Hamid Karzai, a Pakhtun, as the president of the new government of Afghanistan, the Tajiks retained considerable  influence over policymaking.  “Tajik generals and their proxies did control the army as well as key secret policy and intelligence agencies hated by the Pashtuns,” wrote Selig Harrison in an op-ed article for The Washington Post published in January 2007.  “The Taliban is effectively exploiting Pashtun dissatisfaction with Kabul recruiting many of its fighters from disaffected tribes in the Ghilzai branch of the Pashtuns who resent the favoritism Karzai has shown to higher status tribes such as his own Durranis.  Mulla Omar, the key Taliban leaders is a Ghilzai.”[vii] Pakistan continued to support the Pakhtuns, among them the remnants of the Taliban. In the meantime, excessive use of force by the United States increased resentment against the West and contributed to the reemergence of Taliban as a political force in the Pakhtun areas

What is, therefore, inappropriately described as the advance of the insurgent Taliban into southern Afghanistan is a different surge that put the Taliban in virtual control of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s.  The dynamics that propels this move is very different; on both sides of the border, it is gaining strength because of the resentment that is felt by the Pakhtuns for not being able to share power and spoils that come from being the rulers in Kabul.  The support the insurgency receives from the Pakistani side of the border is for two reasons.  There are still millions of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan’s border areas.  They have strong links with their tribal and clan associates on the other side.  Second, there is growing resentment that Islamabad is attempting to impose a model of governance that is different from the one that was used for centuries in the areas in which the tribal code (the Pakhtunwali) and perceived Islamic values got blended into a system that had a wide acceptance.  There is a growing perception that the government in Islamabad, then headed by President Pervez Musharraf, was under the influence of the West – in particular the United States – to secularize the political system.  This impression was reinforced because Islamabad resisted the attempts of the provincial government that then governed the NWFP to introduce Islamic laws in the areas under its administration.  These laws sought to impose strict moral and cultural codes among the province’s people.  The ruling coalition in the NWFP was dominated by the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Islam, JUI, a political party that subscribes to the orthodox (Deobandi) interpretation of Islam.  The party has strong links with the clerical establishment in Saudi Arabia.  It was also one of the constituents of the Mutahis Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA, the main opposition group in Pakistan’s national legislature in 2002-07.

This mixing of strong feelings about Pakhtun nationalism, tribal rivalries within the Pakhtun community and the growing influence of orthodox Islam on these people produced a heady brew.  How to deal with this situation?  Of the several approaches, four were attempted at various degrees of intensity.  The first one was to awe the Pakhtuns with the use of overwhelming force.  The second was to use development in conjunction with the use of force.  The third was to work within the tribal system and leave intra-community affairs to the traditional leaders who were to be allowed to operate within strictly drawn boundaries.  The fourth was to put emphasis on well-planned economic and social development. The last approach is still evolving.

The first approach with some sprinkling of the second was the preferred option pursued by the United States as well as NATO.  It was the basis of the plan offered by the Bush administration to President Pervez Musharraf on various occasions.[viii] The second is still being worked upon; it has never been fully deployed. The third approach was attempted by the Pakistan government and the British command in Helmand province of Southern Afghanistan.  But that approach did not win favor with Washington.

In September 2006, Ali Muhammad Jan Orakzai, then governor of NWFP, concluded an agreement with the tribal chiefs of North and South Waziristan according to which the area was to be emptied of all foreign fighters and no penetration of mujahideen was to be allowed into Afghanistan.  In return, the Pakistan army was to pull back its personnel from the area.  Islamabad had reached the conclusion that it was losing not only its soldiers in numerous clashes with the tribes, it was also losing their commitment to be a part of the Pakistani nation.  But according to NATO and American officials based in Afghanistan, “cross-border attacks have increased in North since Mr Orakzai orchestrated [the] peace deal. . . that allowed foreign and Pakistani militants to remain at large while the military scaled down operations.  Western diplomats also expressed concern that the Al Qaeda is continuing to plot terrorist campaigns from the mountainous tribal areas and that the agreement has ensured the terrorists sanctuary.”[ix] A report by the International Crisis Group said militants were creating a virtual mini state in North and South Waziristan.

These misgivings about the Pakistani approach notwithstanding, the British military command in southern Afghanistan tried something very similar in an area for which they had the responsibility.  Following bitter clashes in the summer of 2006 between British troops and tribesmen, the Musa Qila tribal council, acting with British approval and backed by Mohammed Daud, governor of Helmand province, negotiated a ceasefire in September 2006.  A 15-point peace agreement was the basis of the ceasefire.  The accord provided for an end to the tribal offensive, the withdrawal of British forces and the creation of a local militia that would replace the central government police.  After peace prevailed for 35 days, the British pulled out on 17 October.  However, three months later, militants overran the town of Musa Qila, detained police officers and tribal elders, seized weapons and government equipment and bulldozed part of the district offices.  According to one report, “American officials in Afghanistan had opposed the agreement because it left the broader district of Musa Qila, a poppy growing region of Helmand, open to the Taliban.  But the British commander in Helmand at the time demanded it as a way to release his men from a pointless and occasionally bloody siege of the town.  Residents had welcomed the deal. .. because it brought a temporary peace to the badly damaged town.  But some had warned at the time that it was handing a victory to the Taliban.”[x] This brief overview of the approaches that have been tried in the recent past and have not produced the expected results leads us to conclude that this may be the right time to attempt a concentrated effort at improving the economic well-being of the tribal people. This is the subject of the fifth section of the paper.

4.         Resurgent Insurgents in the Pakhtun Belt and a Military Surge

There was near consensus in late winter of 2006-07 among intelligence experts in the United States and the UK that the various strategies followed in the Pakhtun tribal belts had not worked and that the North Waziristan Agency had become the new training ground and command and control center for Al Qaeda.  According to one report, “the United States had also identified several new Qaeda compounds in North Waziristan, including what that official said might be training operatives for strikes against targets beyond Afghanistan.”[xi] Earlier John D. Negroponte, then director of national intelligence, told Congress in January 2007 that “Al Qaeda’s core elements are resilient” and that the organization was cultivating stronger operational connections and relationships that radiate outward from their leaders secure hide-out in Pakistan to affiliates throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe.”  How was the Al Qaeda able to re-establish itself?  “American officials and analysts said a variety of factors had come together to allow ‘core Al Qaeda’ – a reference to Mr. bin Laden and his immediate circle – to regain some of its strength.  The emergence of a relative haven in North Waziristan and the surrounding area has helped senior operatives communicate more effectively with the outside world via courier and the internet.”[xii] Another reason for the failure of these agreements to produce the desired results was that they were not followed by intense development efforts. Had that been done, some of the resentments that contributed to the re-emergence of the Taliban would have been countered.

That the model being pursued by the international community in Afghanistan was not producing the desired results was revealed by the findings of a survey conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  The CSIS report was funded in part by the US Agency for International Development.  Some 1,000 ordinary Afghan citizens were interviewed.  According to them, conditions in their country had deteriorated markedly since 2005 with rising violence, government corruption and “misguided U.S. efforts.”  All this was contributing to growing unease among the population.  The report said that the Afghans tend to be more negative in their outlook than official statistics or media accounts would suggest.  “Public fear and frustration are on the rise in Afghanistan.  As a result, Afghans are beginning to disengage from national governing processes and lose confidence in their leadership,” wrote the authors of the report.  “Dramatic changes are required in the coming weeks, or 2007 will become the breaking point.”[xiii]

The report recommended a new approach, with the focus of the international community’s efforts shifting towards economic development and giving local communities more control over aid money.  It also suggested a shift in military strategy with less emphasis on major military operations in favor of rapid-response forces that can protect the citizenry during emergencies.  “NATO and the United States’ ‘big army’ military operations and emphasis on foot soldier ‘fills’ are doing more damage than good,” said the report.  The report was released in Washington on 23 February 2007.  It echoed the comments made a few days earlier by the departing US commander in Afghanistan, Lt. General Karl W. Eikenberry.  He told a congressional panel in his testimony that “a point could be reached at which the government of Afghanistan becomes irrelevant to its people and the goal of establishing a democratic and moderate, self-sustaining state could be lost forever.”

How is the United States dealing with the rapid growth in the level of insurgency in Afghanistan, in particular in the country’s Pakhtun areas?  On 15 February 2007 while deeply engaged in defining a new strategy for stabilizing Iraq and extracting the United States from that country without damaging the United States long-term strategic interests in the Middle East, President George W. Bush turned his attention towards America’s other war.  The war in Afghanistan was not going well for the United States and for NATO.  The Taliban, once believed to be fully defeated in late 2001, after only three months of America’s military campaign, were resurging in the southern parts of the country.  The question before Mr. Bush as he spoke at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington-based think-tank, was the same he had begun to address in Iraq.  How to save Afghanistan from once again plunging into chaos?

As a newspaper account put it:  the remarks to the American Enterprise Institute by the American president amounted to an unusually high-profile acknowledgement of the precarious state of the effort to stabilize Afghanistan, a country the administration long held as a foreign policy success story.  The new American plan involved mostly increasing the manpower and fire power available to the Western alliance.  Washington planned to extend the tour of duty of 3,200 of its troops already engaged in the country.  The US would like NATO to considerably strengthen its contingent and persuade some of the larger members of the Alliance to remove the “caveats” under which their personnel operate.  France, Germany and Italy did not permit the deployment of their troops to the southern parts of Afghanistan.  An effort will also be made to increase the size of the Afghan army from 32,000 to 70,000.  After announcing in February 2006 that it will pull out 1,700 of its troops from southern Iraq, Britain announced that it will add 1,400 soldiers to its contingent in southern Afghanistan.

President Bush asked Congress for $11.8 billion to pay for increased operations in the country.  He promised that America would help build new roads that would spur economic development as well as control – and eventually eliminate – the production and trade of opium.  And then there was to be a Pakistan component to the new Afghan strategy.  This had three prongs.  One, to improve relations between Presidents Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf that had seriously soured.  Two, to persuade Pakistan to become even more active in preventing infiltration of Pakhtuns from its side of the border to join those of their clansmen on the other side.  Pakistan already had 80,000 troops deployed on its side of the border.  It had taken heavy casualties – according to official accounts, some 800 soldiers were killed and 3,000 wounded in the operations conducted in 2005-06.  This was a larger toll than taken by the United States and its allies.  But the United States was not satisfied by the amount of pressure Islamabad was exerting on the tribes in the Pakhtun belt that were providing support to the insurgents.  On 26 February 2006 Vice President Dick Cheney paid an unannounced visit to Islamabad to get President Musharraf to do more.  The White House was using as leverage the discomfort in the new Congress, now under the control of Democrats, about what was seen as Islamabad’s tepid support for the American and NATO efforts against the insurgents.  Three, to allow the “hammer and anvil” work along the border with Afghanistan.  In this the United States and NATO were to be the hammer with Pakistan to become the anvil which gathers the enemy to be struck down.

Would the strategy work and save Afghanistan from once again becoming a failed state?  The history of dealing with insurgencies has one important lesson to teach.  Throwing more of the same into a worsening situation never pays.  What did not succeed the first time around was not going to succeed again even with the doubling or tripling of the effort.  This was the lesson taught to the French in Algeria by the Algerian freedom fighters, to the United States in Vietnam by the Vietcong, and would possibly have been  repeated for America in Iraq had Washington not changed its strategy dramatically in 2008.  What will work is an entirely different approach that builds on the strengths of a society in turmoil rather than seeks to exploit its weaknesses.

Accordingly, this paper will advocate a four-pronged approach that focuses on economic and social development with the promise of use of force remaining in the background.  A carefully formulated program should be developed by the authorities on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, in association with the representatives of the tribes.  These tribes were cut into two by the drawing of the Durand Line of 1893.  A Pakistan-Afghanistan council of elders should be formed to help formulate the plan and to help in its implementation.  The council should oversee a softened rather than hardened Pak-Afghan border.   Pakistan should not force the 2.5 million or so refugees that live on its side of the border to return to their country.  It has threatened to do that out of frustration at the barrage of criticism it is receiving for not doing enough to prevent the Taliban for using its territory as a sanctuary. This strategy will be discussed in some detail in Section 5 below.

5.         A Development Effort Focused on the Pakhtun Belts

Could economics become the focus of inducing change in the tribal belts? Could the economic development of the two tribal belts, one each in Afghanistan and Pakistan, help to control the growing insurgency in the area and incorporate them fully into the administrative and political structures of the two countries?

These objectives can be achieved but such an effort will require an approach significantly different from the one being currently pursued by the West, in particular the United States.  This approach is the basis of the Afghanistan Compact endorsed by the community of international donors in their meeting in London in January 2006.  The donors committed $10.5 billion of assistance, to be provided as grant, for a set of objectives to be pursued by the government of Kabul.  Most of the goals to be pursued   will be either difficult to achieve or do not conform to the aspirations of the people at whom the program is aimed.  At a special session of NATO foreign ministers held in Brussels on 26 January 2007, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the Bush administration will ask for $10.6 billion of additional funding from Congress, of which $8.6 billion will be spent on military equipment and training, and an additional $2 billion on reconstruction, with the money parceled out over two years.  In the five years since the US forces removed the Taliban government, the US had provided $14.2 billion to Afghanistan.[xiv] Very little of this went to the Pakhtun belt.

A similar approach is contemplated for FATA in Pakistan. The United States has two programs it will fund at various stages of development, one for the general development of  FATA and the other for economic opportunity zones where the products produced by the industries would be allowed duty-free access into the United States. These three programs – one in Afghanistan and two in Pakistan – may help bring about some development in the Pakhtun belts of the two countries and may persuade the young men of these areas to become participants in economic life rather than resort to arms to project their beliefs. However, a coordinated approach would yield better results.

This paper recommends an approach that has a different set of objectives and a different mechanism for achieving them.  Specifically, this strategy has the following objectives: It should focus on bringing literacy to the Pakhtun areas with emphasis on educating women. It should assist with the development of small enterprises particularly in the sectors in which local skills exist. These include transport, metal-working, stone craft, carpet weaving and food processing. And it should place emphasis on trade. Would the people of the area be receptive to participating in these activities?

Pakhtuns share three characteristics that make them good candidates for becoming the focus of a development effort. They have always found it easy to adopt new technologies. It is because of the skills they possess that they took so easily to the Russian made AK-47 and the American stinger missiles and rocket launchers.  Small arm manufacture is a large business in the Pakhtun belts and employs thousands of people on both sides of the border. They have also been involved in trucking business. Their engineering skills come in handy in order to keep old equipment on the roads way beyond what would be considered as their normal lives. They know how to handle money which was why many of those who have settled outside their areas have entered finance – money lending, money transfers, asset management.  A century or so ago Rabindranath Tagore wrote Kabuliwala, the story of a Pakhtun money lender in his native Bengal.  Furthermore, they also have a strong sense of community and community sharing, characteristics that have begun to appear as social capital in development literature.  According to recent thinking, social capital – how people relate with one another and how they use traditional institutions in their communities to regulate economic lives – can contribute impressively to quickening the pace of development and moving backward communities towards modernization.

Will a program drawn up specifically for developing the Pakhtun tribal belt meet resistance because of the strict adherence to the Pakhtun code of behavior, the Pakhtunkhwali?  Would the perceived low social status of women in Pakhtun society act as an inhibitor for a program that must necessarily focus on improving the social and economic status of women?  Much of what is believed about the way male Pakhtun men treat women is not based on a correct reading of their society.

The Pakhtun code has always assigned a strictly defined space to the women folk.  One of the many contradictions with which the Pakhtuns live is that women are the custodian of Pukhtunwali – the ancient code of behavior.  The women do not see their status as low; only different.  They actively participate in the economic life of their community; they join as herdspeople, grow crops, they tend orchards, and they look after the family’s meager assets.  While they manage the home, men are free to roam the world.  The traditional Pakhtun woman does not wear the veil and mixes easily with men.  What the Taliban did to women was not a part of the Pakhtun code, it was influenced by the encroachment of Wahabism into the Pakhtun areas.

Wahabi influences were brought in through the seminaries that produced warriors for the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  And once Al Qaeda settled in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, it pushed Wahabi thought into the making of public policy.  Accordingly the Taliban pursued a new code of behavior that was transplanted from the considerably more conservative tribal society of Saudi Arabia.  This fusion between the Saudi family code and the Pukhtunwali took place in the hundreds of seminaries (madrassas) that were established all along the Pak-Afghan border by Pakistan with the help of the Saudis.  The Americans provided military equipment and training to the young men who were enrolled in these institutions and trained as mujahideen to fight the Soviet occupying forces in Afghanistan.  It also came in through the returning Pakhtun migrants from the Middle East where they had gone as contract workers in the many construction sites in the area. By adopting this new code, some Pakhtun elements were departing significantly from their deeply embedded traditions.  This raises the question whether those who succumbed to this way of life can be weaned back from it?  In particular whether they would allow their women to be educated?  The development of programs must have a large element aimed at increasing female literacy.  There is ample anecdotal evidence available to suggest that once the Pakhtuns recognize that educating women have economic and social rewards, they are prepared to allow the girls to go to school.  The reason why female literacy is abysmally low in the tribal areas is more a reflection of the lack of economic opportunities available to the tribal society than a consequence of the tribal code of conduct.  The antipathy shown by the Taliban towards girl’s education was an aberration in Pakhtun behavior.

While the arrival of Wahabism in the area may impede female education, Islam does not hinder the development of small enterprises focusing on the skills that are available in abundance to exploit the ample natural resources of the area. As indicated in the notes to Table 5 above, there are considerable resources available in the tribal belt that could become the basis of small enterprise development. Small scale enterprises can also be established in some other sectors where skills and resources are present. These, as already indicated, include metal-working, small engineering, stone-craft and food processing. However, there are several constraints that will have to be dealt with before the full potential of this type of business development can be realized. These include the availability of capital, further development of the skills already possessed by the target population and marketing. The removal of these constraints should be an important part of the development strategy. This is where Pakistan should provide free access to the Pakhtun businesses and transport to the markets in India and the Middle East.

Since the markets for the products of these enterprises are limited, promotion of trade must become an integral part of the development plan. It is giving access to the landlocked tribal belt that is of critical importance for the success of the proposed development program.  Transit trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan is governed by two agreements; a bilateral arrangement signed in 1965 which allows Afghan goods to use the port of Karachi and transit through Pakistani territory before entering Afghanistan.  The Afghan Trade and Transit Agreement (ATTA), allowed Pakistan to create a “negative” list of goods that could not transit its territory.  The list was expanded over time and reached twenty-four, including some goods of vital interest to Afghanistan.  The make-up of the negative list sometimes reflected Pakistan’s desire to gain a favorable access for its own products to Afghanistan (e.g. textiles) and sometimes to deny Indian manufactures to gain markets in Afghanistan. ATTA was revised in 2003 after the establishment of the Karzai regime in Kabul with the number of exempted items reduced to only four.

However, the revised agreement did not meet the standards set by the United Nations’ Global Facilitation Partnership of Transportation and Trade (GFP), according to which “the corridor arrangements are a set of rules governing all aspects of transport and transit of good throughout a given route (corridor) backed by a treaty singed by all transit countries.  Corridor agreements deal with a wide range of issues such as infrastructure, customs efficiency, bottlenecks.  Corridors are or should be backed by proper institutional and implementation mechanisms such as management structures that involve the governments (technical agencies) and the stakeholders (e.g., representatives of trade and related professions).  Performance monitoring mechanisms (indicators) are also highly desirable.”[xv] The Afghanistan-Pakistan agreement did not fully meet this definition.  It was also subject to political pressure when Islamabad, at times irritated by what it perceived to be Afghan hostility towards it, closed its border thus halting the transit of both imports to and exports from Afghanistan.  The most serious incident occurred in 1955 when Pakistan suspended ATTA to punish the government headed by Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan for its support to the Pakhtunistan issue.

Pakistan has been more willing to allow its territory to be used for the development of Afghan trade with its northern neighbors (the countries in Central Asia) than with South Asia.  Both Afghanistan and Pakistan are active member of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) which also includes Iran, Turkey, and the Central Asian republics. A transit trade agreement concluded among the member states and Pakistan allows Afghanistan to import goods for onward movement to Central Asia. However, the full potential of regional trade will only be realized once India is allowed to use these corridors. Opening Afghanistan to regional trade should also be possible within the context of the South Asia Free Trade Area (SAFTA) that became operational on 1 January 2006. Afghanistan was invited to join the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in November 2005. SAARC is responsible for overseeing the implementation and development of SAFTA. Afghanistan has still to formally join SAFTA.

What should be the main objectives and components of the program suggested in this study?

  • It should be formulated for the economic and social development of the Pakhtun population living in the tribal belt that straddles the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
  • Its principal aim should be to provide productive employment to the young males who have few opportunities available to them in the “licit” economy.
  • $10 billion development expenditure should be set aside for the program to be implemented over a five year period; with expenditure scaled up, starting with $1.0 billion in the first year and ending with $3.00 billion in the fifth year.
  • Sixty percent of the funds should be spent on small development schemes in four sectors (roads, water supply – both drinking and irrigation – schools and colleges, clinics and hospitals).  Of the remaining, $3 billion should go into micro-finance and private equity schemes, and the remaining $1 billion should be spent on institution building including training of personnel.
  • A multi-tiered project development and implementation institution mechanism should be established with its base made up of the tribal leaders in a cluster of no more than ten villages, a provincial or agency council, equally divided by the people chosen by the primary councils and government officials and chaired by the provincial governors (on the Afghan side) and the political agent (on the Pakistani side).  The next tier in this set up should be a council of tribal elders chosen from the 17 provinces and agencies on both sides of the border.
  • An advisory council representing the two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan – should have the overall responsibility for overseeing the development of the program and its implementation. Some other nations with interest in the area such as the United States, Iran, India and Russia should be invited to join the council as observers. India’s inclusion is vital in order to promote greater regional trade and integration.

The most important impact of the program proposed here would be to provide employment opportunities to the youth in the tribal belt. By making some simple assumptions and projecting the data available for the areas contiguous with Pakistan, it is possible to estimate the number of people who are looking for work, do not have employment opportunities available to them and would benefit enormously from the implementation of the type of development program suggested in this paper. As indicated in Section 1, the two tribal belts have a total population of 7.5 to 8.0 million people. Of this about one-fourth are between the ages of 15 and 30, the age group most in need of jobs and most susceptible to being recruited as foot soldiers for movements such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Only one half of this cohort, or about a million have jobs; the remaining are either looking for work or are employed in the expanding drug trade. We estimate that by spending $ 2 billion a year on development with focus on the labour-intensive sectors, it should be possible to extend legal employment opportunities not only to the one million unemployed young men but also raise the level of productivity of those who are already employed.


It is clear to those who have followed developments in Afghanistan for decades that the   return of chaos to Afghanistan and its spread to the restive tribal areas of Pakistan would contribute greatly to further destabilizing the already troubled Middle East.  Most of what this descent into chaos would result in would go against the long-term interests not only of the United States but of the entire Western and Muslim worlds.  There are some obvious consequences if such a situation indeed develops.  If southern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan were to be Talibanized – if,  that is, some provinces in that part of the country were to come under the full control of local leaders – they will seek to free themselves further from the control of the already weakened government in Kabul.  But Talibanization this time around will mean a different thing.  Then, in the mid-1990s, those who established control over most of Afghanistan did so to bring peace to that troubled country.  They partially succeeded.  The weapon they used was to impose on the people a government based on their reading of Islam.  The regime that then emerged did so by beating a set of tribal warlords who, after helping to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, were fighting to advance their own limited agendas.  This meant plundering the meager resources of the country to benefit only themselves, their tribes and clans.  None of these warlords had nation building or fixing a broken state on their list of priorities.

We can expect something quite different and something considerably more dangerous if the forces that now go under the name of “resurgent Taliban” are able to establish themselves in a few parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The new Taliban’s aims and governing philosophy will be very different from those that ruled earlier.  This group will gain power, if they do, by overcoming a foreign force, not by beating down local rivals.  For the first Taliban regime, war against the West was a byproduct, an unwritten prelude to a drama that had an entirely local content.  As has been documented in a number of studies of the rise of the first generation of Taliban, their main objective was to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan after two decades of political chaos.  This time the focus will primarily be on what the most radicalized components of radical Islam see as the ultimate cause:  an all-out jihad against the West.

Once having gained autonomy, they may fall under the influence of those who are looking for a base from where radical Sunni Islam can begin to exert its influence way beyond the common border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Quasi autonomous – or even semi-autonomous southern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan – may not opt for the full adoption of the Taliban ideology.  What they would do is to fight hard to retain control over their affairs.  The not-so-apparent consequences of this development would reflect the changes that are taking place in Iraq.  If the sectarian violence in Iraq and America’s support for the rising power of the Shiite community in that country results in a bloody suppression of the Sunnis of Anbar and other areas of that country’s Sunni heartland, it will create a chain of events that will certainly have a bearing on the developments in the entire Muslim world – in particular in those parts where Sunnis and Shiites have co-existed in relative harmony for decades if not for centuries. It is, therefore, in the interest of the international community not to allow the situation in Afghanistan to deteriorate any further. Promoting economic development in the Pakhtun areas – the areas most active in the growing insurgency – has to be the most important part of the evolving strategy.

[1] Shahid Javed Burki is a former Finance Minister of Pakistan and Vice President of the World Bank.

[i] The World Bank, Interim Strategy Note for Islamic Republic of Afghanistan for the Period FY07-08, Washington, D.C., April 2006.

[ii] Stephanie Guimbut, Structure and Performance of the Afghan Economy, The World Bank, Washington, D.C., 2004.

[iii] Institute of Public Policy, State of the Economy: Challenges and Opportunities , Lahore, 2008.

[iv] Much has been written about this episode in the history of Afghanistan and Pakistan. See, for instance, Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet invasion to September 10, 2001, New York, The Penguin Press, 2004. and Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the failure of nation building in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia, New York, Viking, 2008.

[v] Vartan Gregorian, The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan:  Politics of Reform and Modernization, 1880-1946, Stanford, Calif.:  Stanford University Press, 1969, p. 158.

[vi] For Pakistan’s relations with Ahmad Shah Masud See Ahmed Rashid,  Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, London, I.B. Tauris, 2000

[vii] Selig Harrison, “Discarding an Afghan opportunity,” The Washington Post, January 30, 2007, p. A7.

[viii] See Ron Suskind,

[ix] Carlotta Gall, “Roadside bomb kills doctor in a Pakistani border region,” The New York Times, February 17, 2007, p. A7.

[x] Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah, “Afghan-town overrun by Taliban,” The New York Times, February 3, 2007, p. A7.

[xi] Mark Mazetti and David Rhode, “Terror officials see Qaeda chiefs regaining power,” The New York Times, February 19, 2007, pp. A1 and A7.  This was a 2-part series carried by the newspaper.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Seema Pate and Steven Ross, Breaking Point:  Measuring Progress in Afghanistan, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., 2007.

[xiv] Molly Moore, “Rice presses allies to boost Afghan aid,” The Washington Post, January 27, 2007, p. A16.

[xv] website.