Monday, January 23, 2006

"Vast, Lawless Areas"

The lines on a map tell us which state is legally entitled to exercise sovereignty over a particular territory, but they say nothing about whether that authority translates into effective control.

The Rio Grande, from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico, become the southern boundary of the United States in 1845 when Texas was admitted to the Union as the 28th state. Almost forty years later, the absence of effective control over vast stretches of West Texas was acknowledged when the county commissioners of Pecos County appointed a notorious drunk and small-time thief to be justice of the peace. Thus Judge Roy Bean came to be the "Law West of the Pecos," dispensing beer and frontier justice from the porch of a saloon called the Jersey Lilly.

Developing states, like the United States in the nineteenth century, often include what are effectively ungoverned territories in which lawlessness (or its alternative, frontier justice) is the norm. The same is true of states in the middle of a war.

A story in yesterday's New York Times reminds us that Pakistan is a state lacking effective control over parts of its territory. Carlotta Gall and Mohammad Khan write,

Two years after the Pakistani Army began operations in border tribal areas to root out members of Al Qaeda and other foreign militants, Pakistani officials who know the area say the military campaign is bogged down, the local political administration is powerless and the militants are stronger than ever.

Both Osama bin Laden, who released a new audiotape of threats against the United States this week, and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are believed to be living somewhere in the seven districts that make up these tribal areas, which run for more than 500 miles along the rugged Afghan border and have been hit by several American missile strikes in recent weeks.

The officials said they had been joined by possibly hundreds of foreign militants from Arab countries, Central Asia and the Caucasus, who present a continuing threat to the authorities within the region.

The tribal areas are off limits to foreign journalists, but the Pakistani officials, and former residents who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution, said the militants--who call themselves Taliban--now dispensed their own justice, ran their own jails, robbed banks, shelled military and civilian government compounds and attacked convoys at will. They are recruiting men from the local tribes and have gained a hold over the population through a mix of fear and religion, the officials and former residents said.

As in Texas west of the Pecos during the 1880s and 1890s, a semblance of government exists in the tribal areas of Pakistan, but it is not an authority that is responsive to Gen. Pervez Musharraf's government in Islamabad and its avowed determination to root out members of Al Qaeda from the border regions. This is why the United States felt compelled to use an unmanned Predator aircraft to attack a suspected Al Qaeda meeting place in Bajaur on January 13. On one level, the attack was a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty (as the anti-American demonstrations that followed pointed out), but on another level complaints about the violation of Pakistani sovereignty are clearly divorced from the reality on the ground.

In what must be considered an early contender for the understatement of the year, an American military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the New York Times, "With vast, lawless areas in which Taliban-style justice holds sway, Pakistan faces serious challenges."

Pakistan's challenges, however, are ones that America and the world also face. In the 1880s, the crime that occurred in ungoverned territories was, for the most part, a local problem. Not any more. Thanks to all those factors that together create what we call globalization, Pakistan's ungoverned tribal regions are right next door to all of us.