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Tribal Areas Excluded from Taliban Peace Talks

Millions of FATA residents have been displaced since 2003.
Millions of FATA residents have been displaced since 2003.
Intellectuals, lawmakers and clan leaders from northwestern Pakistan's tribal areas have complained that they are left out of Islamabad's talks with the Taliban.

Residents of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) say that despite being the main victims of the Taliban's decade-old campaign, they are not represented in the talks between Islamabad and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the country's largest insurgent group.

Ayaz Wazir, a former diplomat from South Waziristan tribal district, told Radio Mashaal, "This is unfortunate, because [the people of the FATA] have suffered most during the past ten years and they eventually will be expected to endure the consequences of a peace deal…FATA, which is now being dubbed as the 'restive region,' have been deprived of representation since the creation of Pakistan [in 1947]."

Wazir described the estimated seven million predominately Pashtun population of FATA as an underprivileged and marginalized lot. "The [the ruling classes] in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Peshawar decide on their behalf," he said.

On January 29, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced a four-member committee to negotiate with the Taliban. He named Irfan Siddiqui, Rahimullah Yousafzai, Major Muhammad Aamir and Rustam Shah Mohmand as its members. Sidddiqui and Yousafzai are journalists, while Aamir is a former intelligence operative and Mohmand is a retired civil servant.

The Taliban named five Pakistani politicians and clerics to represent them. Three of their nominees backed out, leaving Islamist politicians Ibrahim Khan and Maulana Samiul Haq to negotiate with the government on the Taliban's behalf.

Although none of the members in the negotiations represents the tribal areas, Pakistani media reports indicate that the two sides are talking about imposing the Islamic Shari'a law in the region, ceasing military operations against the Taliban in FATA and freeing detained insurgents.

Latif Afridi
Latif Afridi
​Former lawmaker Latif Afridi says that most of the negotiators either openly support the Taliban or are their sympathizers. He says this has discouraged FATA residents from expecting a meaningful settlement in their homeland.

Afridi, who represented the Khyber tribal region in Pakistan's parliament, criticized the government's approach to talks with the Taliban, explaining that Islamabad needs first to establish its authority over the FATA instead of trying to appease the Taliban by negotiating their demands.

"How can these talks be successful when the Taliban are not ready to surrender their weapons and accept the government's authority," Afridi asked. "In addition, the Taliban want to impose their version of Islamic Shari'a law. I don't think that these talks could ever succeed."

Shahjee Gul, who represents Khyber in Pakistan's National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, agreed, accusing Islamabad of keeping lawmakers in the dark about negotiations that could shape the region’s future.

"Even if the talks are successful, the process will not address the long-standing grievances of the tribal people because they believe that they are not being treated as equal citizens," Gul said. "If this continues we have no option but to demand an independent province."

Afrasiab Khattak
Afrasiab Khattak
Afrasiab Khattak, leader of the secular Awami National Party, said that Islamabad is exploiting the geostrategic significance of its tribal backwaters without concern for the suffering of its population.

"The tribal people are nowhere to be seen in the talks with the Taliban because the rulers in Islamabad want to use this region as a springboard for what they view as the 'Great Game' [in the region]. The Great Game, a 19th century term, is still being used to characterize regional competition for influence and resources in Afghanistan.

Islamabad is tight-lipped over criticism of its peace overtures to the Taliban.

Ibrahim Khan, a negotiator for the Taliban, admits that the process is not representative but says it should proceed.

Taliban negotiators Maulana Samiul Haq and Ibrahim Khan
Taliban negotiators Maulana Samiul Haq and Ibrahim Khan
​"At this juncture the main issue is not the representation but the success of the peace talks," he told Radio Mashaal. "Once the talks are on track we can ask the government to ensure representation for all [the parties to the conflict]."

Residents of the tribal areas form the majority of the 50,000 civilians and soldiers killed during the past decade of insurgency. In addition, more than two million Pashtuns from the region have been displaced during various cycles of fighting.

Already one of Pakistan's most underdeveloped corners, FATA is now also seen as the global reservoir of the crippling disease, polio.

Radio Mashaal correspondents Monawar Shah and Riaz Gul contributed reporting to this story.