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Pakistan Amends Constitution To Merge Tribal Region

FILE: National Assembly, the lower house of the Pakistani Parliament.
FILE: National Assembly, the lower house of the Pakistani Parliament.

The lower house of the Pakistani Parliament has adopted a landmark constitutional amendment to merge the northwestern tribal region into the neighboring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

A two-thirds majority of the popularly elected National Assembly voted in favor of the 31st Amendment Bill 2017, which will end the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as a separate administrative entity by combining it with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The move will also extend citizenship rights to FATA's nearly 6 million predominantly Pashtun residents.

The law is expected to be adopted by the Senate or upper house of the Pakistani Parliament and signed into law by the president. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's provincial legislature also needs to adopt the law with a two-thirds majority. Still, implementation of the administrative, legal, political, and economic changes outlined in the amendment will take years.

“Today, this assembly has adopted a historic amendment which will have far-reaching consequences,” Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi told lawmakers on May 24. “We have adopted this law through consensus between the treasury and opposition benches.”

Abbasi said Islamabad’s challenge will now be to bring the impoverished border region on par with the rest of the country.

“All political parties have agreed in principle to provide the residents of FATA with the same schools, colleges, hospitals, roads, and [judicial and administrative] system that is available to the rest of Pakistan,” he said.

Abbasi’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party joined the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), and other smaller parties to adopt the amendment. Two PML-N allies, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl and Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, opposed the move.

“Today marks a major victory for Pakistan. We have ended the [colonial] anomaly that lingered in Pakistan after independence [in 1947],” PTI leader Imran Khan told the parliament.

A map of Pakistan's FATA
A map of Pakistan's FATA

Forming an arc in western Pakistan along Afghanistan’s border, FATA consists of Pashtun tribal territories. Beginning in the 19th century, the British began to shape it as a buffer between Afghanistan and India. Pakistan did little to change those arrangements and the region remained nominally independent under a draconian legal regime, the Frontier Crimes Regulations.

FATA became a central theater for the global war on terrorism after remnants of the Afghan Taliban regime and allied Pakistani, Arab, and Central Asian militants moved into the region after the demise of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in 2001. During the next 17 years, thousands of FATA residents were killed in attacks by militants and the Pakistani military’s counterinsurgency campaigns. Millions were displaced by the fighting.

“The P.T.M. was talking about the grievances the residents of tribal areas were feeling,” Khan said, referring to the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement by its Urdu acronym. “There were dangers that foreign actors would have used these grievances to foment terrorism in Pakistan.”

The PTM, however, rejects violence. Since its emergence in March, it has campaigned for fundamental human rights for Pakistan’s estimated 30 million Pashtuns among the 207 million population.

Its protests have called on the government to probe disappearances and extrajudicial killings during the years of insurgency. It also demanded demining, relaxing curfews, and better treatment at checkpoints dotted across FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Pakistan’s powerful military has taken steps to address the PTM’s demands. Hundreds of disappeared civilians have been released from detention or reunited with their families. Aggressive searches and special permits for moving into FATA have ended while the number of checkpoints has decreased.

The military has repeatedly denied the PTM’s accusations that it is involved in disappearances and extrajudicial killings or tolerates and supports any militants in FATA.

In recent weeks, the military has also taken a keen interest in pushing the civilian government and the outgoing parliament in changing FATA’s status before the end of their term next week.

“Weighing all the pros and cons in detail, the [National Security] Committee endorsed that FATA shall be merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa along with the introduction of the administrative and judicial institutional structures and laws of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” a government statement noted on May 19.

The National Security Committee is comprised of most senior civilian and military officials including the prime minister and the powerful army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Editor's Note: This story has been amended to reflect that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's legislature also needs to approve the law.