Lawless regions in Pakistan?

lost 1 photoIf you are looking for the Bush White House to drop a bombshell on the fall campaign, keep your eye on the mountains of western Pakistan.

This is, of course, where American experts think that Osama bin Laden is hiding. An in-depth and important A1 feature by Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post makes it pretty clear that this assumption is widespread, but based on information that is sketchy. They think he’s up there in those remote mountains. Why? No one wants to talk about it.

The headline is that the U.S. is changing tactics, reverting to a kind of Clintonian approach. When in doubt, bomb people from high altitude with high-tech weapons that do not get Americans killed. So, the lede proclaims:

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Frustrated by repeated dead ends in the search for Osama bin Laden, U.S. and Pakistani officials said they are questioning long-held assumptions about their strategy and are shifting tactics to intensify the use of the unmanned but lethal Predator drone spy plane in the mountains of western Pakistan.

I guess U.S. tacticians are taking this on faith, but that isn’t the religion angle that interested me.

Later in the report, the Post offers one concrete and very symbolic fact. It isn’t surprising, but it’s powerful.

Bin Laden is believed to depend on a small circle of fellow Saudis for his personal security. But officials said the Taliban provides him and his lieutenants with a network of safe houses. According to an internal Taliban memo viewed by The Washington Post, Taliban security operatives have a code name for bin Laden — Taqwa, an Arabic term that means fear of or reverence for God.

Then a few sentences later, we hit the heart of the matter, the reason that Osama is still on the loose.

After the disruption of the airliner plot in London in August 2006, it became clear that al-Qaeda’s core command — previously thought to have been knocked out — had made a comeback. The CIA later dispatched scores of additional officers to Pakistan’s ungoverned tribal areas and North-West Frontier Province, where al-Qaeda had taken root.

The environment, however, had become more hostile than ever. Resurgent Taliban fighters had forced the Pakistani government to sign cease-fire agreements in the lawless tribal border areas of North and South Waziristan.

There are two key words here that I would like to challenge — “ungoverned” and “lawless.”

I think what the Post means is that these tribal areas are not ruled by the government or the laws of Pakistan. But that does not mean that these tribal regions have no rulers and, above all, no courts. That’s the point, isn’t it? These regions are ruled by Islamists who do not recognize Pakistan as a nation that is sufficiently Muslim. There are courts. There are Sharia courts that are sympathetic to Osama and, perhaps, controlled by people loyal to him.

“Lawless” and “ungoverned”? Not really. That’s the actual heart of the story, right there.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ben

    It’s a lot more about tribes up there than about “Islamists.” The “lawless” term, which obviously isn’t literal, comes about from a sense that power is radically decentralized and the state doesn’t have a monopoly on the use of force.

    I remember driving through the Khyber Pass in 2005 as a journalist — from Afghanistan through some of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to Peshawar. We had to make numerous stops, each time letting out one guy with a rifle and letting on board a new guy with a gun. These self-appointed guards weren’t optional. They were each members of the particular tribe that controlled that particular small area we happened to be driving through. If we had come under attack from brigands or a rival tribe, the tribe who controlled the area would be held responsible for our lack of safety. The area each tribe controls can be VERY small — just a matter of a few miles on the road.

    That’s what “lawless” means. It means a mix of small Pashtun tribes, some hostile with each other, all fiercely guarding their territory, and caring very little about the ethnic Punjabis who run Pakistan down in the valleys.

    Sometimes it’s not primarily about religion.

    Read: “It’s the tribes, stupid!” from Robert Kaplan,

  • Mike Perry

    Many thanks to Ben for clarifying the meaning of “lawless” in this region. This lawlessness is also why the politicians who claimed we should have go into Afghanistan rather than Iraq are clueless about geography and history.

    Iraq is flat, open and populated. Historically, it hasn’t been hard for a central government to control it and, if fact, some of history’s first civilizations were located there. That’s one of many reasons why the surge succeeded. Once the Iraqi people turned to our side, the terrorists had no place to hide. And the country’s oil wealth means we’re not going to have to subsidize reconstruction much longer.

    In contrast, the mountainous regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan are almost impossible to control from one center. It’s too easy for tribes with a centuries old culture of warfare to remain independent and thus ‘lawless.’ The mountains would devour any force we sent in (think Italy in WWII) and the elevations would have made helicopters almost useless. That’s why during the Afgan war, we provide air power rather than large numbers of troops on the ground and why, contrary to this article’s claims, we used high altitude aircraft, including B-52s to hit suspected Osama hideouts.

    –Michael W. Perry, Chesterton on War and Peace

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  • Dave

    “Lawless” and “ungoverned” are used by this journalist in a context in which lawful governance flows from a national jurisdiction holding diplomatic relations and mutual recogntion with other such national jurisdictions; or, in a federal system, with a subset of such jurisdiction, like a US state. Tribal rule in places where the writ of such a jurisdiction doesn’t run, doesn’t count.

    It’s a matter of what constitutes law; it’s not a failure to Get Religion.