While President Obama approaches a decision on America's war strategy in Afghanistan, across the border in Pakistan an equally important battle rages against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Just last week a suicide bomber in Peshawar, a Pakistan city near the Afghan border, blew himself up outside of a courthouse killing 19 civilians and injuring dozens more.
Although Pakistan forces have been making tremendous sacrifices, their fight is only one element of a larger battle against violent extremism. It's time to boost the effort to build local institutions that provide an alternative to the ideology of intolerance and violence promoted by the Taliban and Al Qaeda. One critical element of democratic governance continues to be absent from this tribal region - political parties.
The Pakistan military is currently engaged in an offensive operation in the Taliban and Al Qaeda stronghold of South Waziristan, the southernmost agency within the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA). Over 30,000 Pakistan troops have entered the heartland of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and they have responded by slaughtering hundreds of innocent civilians in suicide attacks throughout the country. In August, a U.S. drone killed the TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud and drones are now providing surveillance to the Pakistan troops.
The Pakistan military has made notable gains. They now control most of the Taliban bases in South Waziristan as militant leaders have fled to the countryside. Despite this military success, much of the hard work still remains. Force alone will not provide a long-term solution to the militancy of this border region. This offensive must be followed by a serious effort to convince the local population that there is a better alternative to the violence and extremism preached by Taliban militants. It won't be easy.
This tribal region is home to over three million inhabitants and it is the most economically depressed area of Pakistan. Over half the population lives below the poverty line and the literacy rate is a mere 17 percent. It is governed by a colonial era set of political and judicial institutions. The law of the land is the Frontier Crimes Regulations, originally created by the British, that allows collective punishment and arbitrary arrest and detention.
FATA residents have no elected representatives at the local or provincial levels. Political parties have been prohibited from operating there. Extremist groups, however, face few constraints on their activities. In this environment, it's not surprising that the Taliban have found many converts.
The good news is that in August President Zardari announced new reforms for the tribal region that are a step in the right direction. This included an authorization allowing political parties to operate. The bad news is that after the initial fanfare there has been little movement to actually enact the announced changes into law.
There is no time to waste. Granted, the military operations in South Waziristan and poor security situation in other tribal areas make party operations challenging. Yet, a 2008 poll found that over 50 percent of FATA residents wanted political parties to operate. There is a desire for an alternative to the status quo.
Political parties play a critical role in a developing democracy. They serve to aggregate the interests within a society into a coherent vision for the future. Right now the only vision for the future available to FATA residents is from extremist groups. It's time to start leveling the playing field. The United States should maintain diplomatic pressure on the Pakistan government to enact this and other reforms that would transition the tribal region into the mainstream of Pakistan society.
The United States can also play an important role in helping support this process. In many countries, The U.S. often provides assistance to nongovernmental organizations that help political parties improve their responsiveness to constituents and strengthen internal democratic practices. The recently passed Kerry-Lugar bill that tripled nonmilitary aid to Pakistan provides for this type of support. There should be no delay in providing technical assistance to all parties that seek to operate in the tribal region.
Supporting political parties in this tribal region will certainly not eliminate the Taliban threat on its own. However, it is one step that can play an important part in reducing the appeal of extremism and terrorism that continue to threaten the United States.