12/13/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Roadway Through the FATA

Islamabad, Pakistan

Sitting next to a four foot tall water pipe, in a cloud of steamy sweetness, I asked the tribal leader in front of me: What is victory? He sputtered smoke, raised his bushy white eyebrows and said, "Victory. How can you have victory here?"

The United States went into Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda. But seven years later, what have we achieved? We have spent over one hundred and seventy billion dollars in Afghanistan and Al Qaeda is growing stronger. We know that the road to the heart of Al Qaeda now leads to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, FATA, in Pakistan. Last month Vice President-elect Joe Biden referring to Al Qaeda leadership said, "That's where they live. That's where they are. That's where it will come from. And right now that (the threat) resides in Pakistan."

What are we doing now? The U.S. has no presence in the FATA. We have little contact or communication with these people and their leaders. We provide little support, healthcare, or aide to the population that lives there. We send in missiles and airstrikes that infuriate the people rather than aide and emissaries to engage their youth who are turning to extremism. It's no surprise that we have not won them back.

There is a way. People who have influence in the tribal 'unsettled' areas are living in nearby settled areas. These tribesmen move to the settled areas for economic and security purposes and are the life-support to their home villages. We must establish dialogue and services with these influential people to build a bridge to the tribesmen in the unsettled FATA areas. These leaders already know the tribal chiefs, spiritual leaders, feudals, tribal custom and code. They also know who the enemy is and can play a role in isolating militants from local people. The dialogue begins with D.I. Khan (South Waziristan); Bannu (North Waziristan); Hangu (Kurram); Kohat (Orakzai); Peshawar (Khyber); Malakand (Mohmand); and Dir (Bajaur).

A friend from the region described the FATA as "a forgotten age" where only the "law of the jungle" prevails. These unsettled areas have become infiltrated by a multinational anti-state terror network (Al Qaeda, Taliban, Haqqani network, and over fourteen definable anti state elements operating in the FATA alone) which the U.S. Government calls "Anti-coalition militias", a group that is far more sinister and interconnected than the West imagines. With five years of Iraqi experience -- and powerful communication and financial support behind them -- this network is growing rapidly.

The FATA tribesmen are completely aware of this situation. When pressed with the question, "If Osama bin Laden was in the house next door, would you notify the authorities?" the answer from the tribesmen I met was a resounding -No. As Frederick Mackeson, a British colonial officer observed in 1850, "their fidelity is measured by the length of the purse of their seducer, and they transfer their obedience - according to the liberality of the donation."

While the enemy weaves in and out of the tribal areas, living and interacting with the people, we fight the war against Al Qaeda superficially through military airstrikes and covert special operations. Homes are destroyed and people die. And because we have no presence on the ground in any capacity, we feed the hatred, Americans are seen as the aggressors, and the militants are seen as the providers. There are a few exceptions; in Bajaur, for example, some tribesmen see the militants as the enemy and are fighting back -- for now.

According to the Pakistani Center for Research and Security studies, ninety percent of the people living in the FATA live below the poverty line, earning less than two dollars a day. To a newborn, life will be a struggle for survival in a warzone. It is not just the United States's presence that is lacking. The Pakistani government provides little to no services in this area. And the international community is absent as well.

The links between the settled and unsettled areas started over one hundred years ago. Facing tribal unrest, and incessant fighting, the British proposed to settle the tribes from Waziristan (present day North Waziristan and South Waziristan) in British territory.

The Secretary of State wrote to Queen Victoria, "The pacification of border tribes by preserving in the exercise of humanizing influences is more likely to be permanent than their subjection by military force; and I always shall therefore receive with satisfaction such proposals as that now before me, recommended by your officers on the spot, which afford a reasonable prospect of rendering the people on the frontier line between our territories and Afghanistan peaceful and friendly neighbors."

The British moved some members of the tribes from the unsettled areas of the frontier to the settled (colony) areas. Before this policy, the British had spent fifteen years and countless funds repressing and punishing the tribes without getting results. The British policy continues today in the FATA.

There are effective local organizations such as the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP) -- part of the Rural Support Programmes Network of Pakistan -- that we could partner with immediately in the settled areas to get started. They work with the people to assess their needs and then build the institutions to deliver care. SRSP has the capacity, they just need directions and financial support to expand. Once dialogue and cooperation are established with the tribesmen in the settled areas, inroads can be laid through them into the tribal unsettled areas.

Yes, the British were ultimately defeated. But they left a unique roadway to the FATA through the adjoining settled areas. It is time to get back in the driver's seat. The road to achieving our objective in Afghanistan goes through the FATA.