WASHINGTON — The U.S. and its allies squandered an opportunity to cement alliances with tribal elders they regard as key to driving Islamic extremists out of havens along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and now face a long and costly effort to regain influence there, counter-terrorism officials and diplomats say.
The Pashtun maliks, or elders, wield enormous political and social power, especially in Pakistan's largely ungoverned tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. But Washington and its allies in Islamabad and Kabul have not made it a priority to forge alliances with them, despite evidence that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are growing stronger in their territories, these officials say.
Once established, the militants have slain or threatened hundreds of these tribal leaders in a campaign that U.S. officials say has seriously undermined counter-terrorism efforts.
That missed opportunity underscores a fundamental U.S. policy failure: Of the billions of dollars spent, little has gone toward counter-insurgency efforts such as working with tribal leaders to determine how to help their constituents, according to U.S., Pakistani and Afghan officials.
As a result, they say, Al Qaeda and the Taliban are doing a far better job of expanding their insurgency than the United States and its allies are of trying to stop it.
Reversing the damage will require many years of aggressive counter-insurgency efforts, said one senior State Department official involved in South Asia issues.
"It's hard, and an incredible contribution of resources, and you have to do it village by village," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing international sensitivities. "But you have to start somewhere."
Pashtun tribes have ruled large parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan for centuries, largely outside government control. Generally they are not militant Islamists, but under their tribal code they are obliged to provide sanctuary to anyone who requests it, including extremists.
After the U.S.-led forces routed the Taliban in 2001, most surviving militants slipped across the border into Pakistan. U.S. officials pressed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to forge alliances with tribal leaders, especially when it became apparent that Al Qaeda and the Taliban were gaining strength, said Henry A. Crumpton, who was the State Department's ambassador at-large for counter-terrorism from 2005 to '07, and before that a senior counter-terrorism official with the CIA.
But the U.S. strategy, sharply criticized by a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office audit, did not require Musharraf to build ties with tribal leaders, according to Crumpton and other current and former U.S. officials and experts. Washington also provided more than $10 billion in aid, mostly military, which the GAO report says was not adequately monitored.
Musharraf used most of the aid for hardware best suited to battling India, Pakistan's neighbor and rival.
Pakistan's infrequent military incursions into the tribal areas usually were followed by a quick withdrawal, angering the tribes and leaving potential allies vulnerable to accusations of spying for the government, according to U.S. and Afghan officials and members of the newly elected Pakistani government.
As Al Qaeda and the Taliban grew stronger, they turned on their hosts, killing tribal leaders who opposed extremist pressure to close down girls schools, barbershops, stores selling videos and other items perceived as trappings of Western culture.
The State Department official estimated that 120 to 140 senior tribal leaders were killed in Pakistan, many in the last 18 months. Militants often leave warning notes pinned to bodies.
"Any tribal leader who has committed to the government is seen as a threat to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, as betrayers of Islam," said M. Ashraf Haidari, Afghanistan's counselor for Political, Security and Development Affairs in Washington. "They can be targeted and some have been killed."
Many tribal leaders have become more supportive of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, or are reluctant to take action against them, the U.S. officials and experts said. And development and outreach efforts in both countries, particularly U.S.-sponsored projects, have foundered.
"It's like an old-fashioned gang war. And at the end of the day, Al Qaeda had the money and the guns and they won the gang war," said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who led a fact-finding delegation to the region last month as chairman of the House Terrorism and Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee.
"It will be very hard for us to find people to work with," Smith said. "Al Qaeda has successfully killed off people who might have opposed them."
Militant leader Baitullah Mahsud rose to power after his followers killed several prominent leaders of his own tribe in South Waziristan.