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Wayward in Waziristan

How the United States is blowing the war on terror in the most dangerous place in the world.

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.

Throughout history, Waziristan's restive tribes have proved capable of driving political events beyond their borders. Their impact is felt today with the Wazir tribe's support of the Haqqani network, which is fighting U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and the Mehsud tribe's providing a base for the TTP, which is wreaking havoc across Pakistan.

Waziristan first experienced the imposition of some form of central authority with the establishment of British rule in the Indian subcontinent. To govern the tribes, the British Raj organized the border region into tribal agencies in the 1890s, appointing a political agent to each. British authority, however, extended only a hundred yards on either side of the main road, beyond which was the land of riwaj, or tribal customs. George Curzon, the viceroy of British India at the turn of the century, struggled to find a solution to keep restive Waziristan calm: "No patchwork scheme … will settle the Waziristan problem," he said. "Not until the military steam-roller has passed over the country from end to end, will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start that machine."

It would, however, be a Pakistani president, not a colonial official, who would send the steamroller into Waziristan. After the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, under pressure to capture wanted militants crossing the border into Afghanistan and to strike against al Qaeda's senior leadership, sent the Pakistan military into Waziristan in 2004. It was the beginning of a quagmire that continues, in different shapes and forms, to this day. The military was quickly bogged down, and the government signed a series of hastily constructed, short-lived peace agreements with the tribes.

The tension reached a boiling point with the July 2007 assault on Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque, in Islamabad. Its students had been stopping individuals, even policemen, whom they deemed "un-Islamic" and had been trying to set up sharia courts. After gunfire was exchanged with security forces, the students barricaded themselves inside the mosque. Elite Pakistani commandos stormed the grounds, and in the ensuing firefight at least 100 people were killed, including female students, with representatives from the victims' families saying the death toll was higher than 1,300.

Largely as a result of the Lal Masjid incident, the TTP was formed in December 2007 under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud and the most fearsome clan in Waziristan, the Shabi Khel Mahsud. The TTP started a campaign of destruction in Waziristan and across Pakistan. Two of its most spectacular assaults were the 2009 attack on the Pakistani Army's headquarters in Rawalpindi and the 2011 assault on Naval Station Mehran in Karachi.

U.S. drone attacks have only poured gasoline on this fire. For Waziristan's inhabitants, the buzzing of drones overhead has become a constant, terrifying presence. Too many stories of innocent tribesmen being killed have leaked into the media. The communities are afraid to gather in tribal jirgas or even within their homes, for fear of being targeted as a "militant gathering" by an American drone operator sitting on the other side of the world.

Amid the chaos of Waziristan, it is the innocent people who suffer -- pounded by drone strikes and the military one day, and TTP suicide bombers the next. They have soured on both sides of this war: An authoritative 2012 survey conducted in the tribal areas showed that while 79 percent of the tribesmen opposed the actions of the United States, 68 percent had negative views of al Qaeda and 63 percent of the TTP. Half the individuals surveyed gave priority to education, stable employment, health schemes, and reliable electricity.

It is vital to heed the voices of the tribesmen yearning to keep Waziristan quiet and calm. Winning them over is essential to making progress in rebuilding war-torn Afghanistan and promoting U.S. interests in the region after the departure of American forces in 2014.

Yet, with the presence of the Pakistani military and the constant presence of U.S. drones, Waziristan is now anything but stable. The United States needs to halt the drone campaign and understand the events of Waziristan within a local social and historical context. Traditional tribal structures and a neutral civil administration committed to the rule of law need to be returned. Above all, the Pakistani government, instead of funding military operations in Waziristan, should be funding schools, hospitals, stable electricity lines, and other development projects for one of the country's most poverty-stricken areas.

The United States, meanwhile, should support Pakistan in bringing effective development and aid to this region. It is only through peaceful means that stability can finally be brought to Waziristan.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

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