Islamabad is set to initiate new legislation that would merge the country’s restive northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into the adjacent province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Pakistani media reports say the cabinet is likely to approve the move soon, paving the way for legislation to formally enact reforms Islamabad has been touting for months.
The move aims to integrate the restive region into Pakistan’s legal, economic, and political mainstream. It will have major implications for domestic stability as well as the country’s relations with neighboring Afghanistan and its fight against terrorism.
Since 2003, more than 50,000 civilians, militants, and soldiers have died in attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, its Al-Qaeda and Central Asian militant allies, and broad Pakistani military sweeps across FATA. The fighting in FATA, a region roughly the size of Belgium with a territory of 27, 000 square kilometers, displaced more than 3 million civilians.
The likely merger is a culmination of decades-long demands, backed by most major Pakistani political parties, to grant the region equal rights and absorb it into the country’s mainstream. The debate took center stage after the region, which borders Afghanistan, became a global headquarters for Al-Qaeda and allied militant movements in the years following 9/11.
After a decade of Pakistani military operations, Islamabad claims to have rid the region of militants. Its powerful military and civilian government apparently agree on the need to reform the region’s archaic governance regime in order to strengthen stability.
Former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak says FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is an important step forward for both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“It will eliminate the stateless patch of territory available for terror syndicates,” he told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “[On the downside], the Pakistani government envisages it as a drawn-out process taking at least five years and rife with roadblocks.”
The move will end FATA’s 70-year-old status in Pakistan as a colonial holdover, which was mainly administered under a century-old colonial law known as the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). Under the new arrangements, FATA’s estimated 7 million to 15 million people will have access to the rule of law and citizenship rights granted to the country’s estimated 200 million citizens by the Pakistani supreme law.
The union will strengthen bonds between the majority Pashtun populations of the two regions. FATA is home to a dozen major Pashtun tribes while most residents of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are Pashtuns, as well. Over the past four decades, many FATA residents have acquired businesses and properties in the province, where the provincial capital Peshawar also serves as headquarters for the bureaucracy that deals with FATA.
Earlier this month, Pakistan’s states and frontier regions minister, Abdul Qadir Baloch, said Islamabad was contemplating granting FATA some $1 billion to help bring the impoverished region up to par with the rest of the country.
“This amount will be in addition to funds now being given for repatriation of internally displaced people,” he told the daily Dawn.
Baloch was part of a government committee that recommended major FATA reforms in an official report last August. Islamabad now aims to gradually merge FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa during the next five years. The region is expected to gain representation in the provincial assembly after the scheduled parliamentary polls next year.
While the provincial assembly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa adopted a resolution to welcome FATA’s amalgamation accession in December, the process is not expected to be all smooth sailing.
Khattak says the merger will render the states and frontier regions ministry, the FATA Secretariat and the Governor’s Secretariat Khyber Pakhtunkhwa obsolete. The three bureaucracies are tasked with supervising and implementing various governance functions in FATA.
“The officialdom, ruling FATA like a fiefdom, would be keen to squeeze the dying system as long as possible, and elements benefiting from the region’s illegal economy will resist change,” he observed.
Such skepticism has prompted some politicians to question Islamabad’s motives. Lawmaker Mahmood Khan Achakzai, an ally of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, says the government has failed to take FATA’s population into confidence.
“The government has taken everyone on board apart from the people of FATA,” he told journalists. “Everyone is talking about reforms in FATA, but no one has asked the views of the people for whom the reforms are intended.”
He noted that the official reform committee paid cursory visits to the seven tribal districts and six more territories that collectively form FATA. The entire exercise lasted for just eight days, he said.
Achakzai’s Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party is holding consultations over the merger next week.
“No one in FATA is against reforms and development, but they need to be consulted extensively,” he said. “It feels like the fate of a conquered territory is being decided.”
Ayaz Wazir, a former diplomat and advocate of FATA rights, said he agrees.
“We do not intend to demand anything outside the democratic norms,” he said. “Now that the fate of FATA is being decided, its estimated 15 million residents should be asked about what they want.”