It's possibly the most ominous-sounding region on the planet: Waziristan -- the name alone evokes al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Islamic militancy. These menaces have brought the world's focus to this small mountainous border region of northwest Pakistan, a part of the country's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which U.S. President Barack Obama referred to as "the most dangerous place in the world."
The combined might of the U.S. and Pakistani militaries has been pounding on this impoverished region, which is about the size of Connecticut, for over a decade. Waziristan is the heart of the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan: Out of 351 strikes, 333 of them have occurred there.
Drone attacks have become America's weapon of choice for pursuing its influence in the region. With the looming withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the architect of Obama's drone strategy, John Brennan, now at the CIA's helm, it is clear that the drones over Waziristan are there to stay. While some have lauded the precision and effectiveness of unmanned aerial vehicles, many stories from Waziristan recount the deaths of innocent women and children in the strikes.
With U.S. satellites and drones firmly focused on this tribal area, it seems as if the United States knows everything yet understands nothing about Waziristan. Fixated on the specters of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, U.S. policymakers have ignored the local culture and history of the tribes in Waziristan, primarily the Wazir and Mehsud tribes. To be fair, it's not exactly easy to get a sense of tribal life peering down from a Predator drone 10,000 feet up. Yet it is exactly this tribal society, with its codes of honor and councils of elders, with which the United States has unwittingly entangled itself in its global fight against terrorism. This failure to understand Waziristan -- not to mention the presence of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), widely known as the Pakistani Taliban -- has only made the violence worse.
Traditionally, law and order in Waziristan was maintained through the cooperation of three pillars of authority: tribal elders, religious leaders, and a civil administrator known as the political agent (PA) appointed by the central government. This is the structure that kept a tenuous peace among the tribes and between the central government and tribal periphery. But with America's war on terror, this structure has been torn to shreds, resulting in the upheaval the world sees today.
Entire councils of elders have been kidnapped and killed or targeted by drones, which mistook them for gatherings of "militants." All told, nearly 400 tribal elders have been killed in Waziristan, according to local tribal elders -- a virtual decapitation of a society with such a small population. Many more have fled to Pakistan's larger cities, unsure of when they will be able to return to their homes and their tribes. The religious leadership also has not been spared, as suicide bombers have walked into mosques and blown themselves up.
The presence of the Pakistani military has also undercut the ability of the civil administration to work effectively with the tribal leadership. The TTP has still targeted a number of PAs, whom it views as the representatives of central authority. Without the structure of the three pillars of authority to maintain law and order, unchecked violence reigns supreme.
The United States must realize that a stable Waziristan is a vital part of promoting its own interests in the region, whether its troops withdraw from Afghanistan or not. An unstable Waziristan will only complicate matters in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
From Alexander the Great to the Mughal emperors to the British, this tribal region in northwest Pakistan has a long history of spoiling the best-laid plans of powerful empires. Above all, it has been known for its fierce tribes: Organized into clans defined by descent from a common ancestor, they lived by an ancient code of honor called Pashtunwali, or "way of the Pashtun," and were known for their tribal feuds. Councils of elders, or jirgas, were used to attempt to check this violence through means of mediation.