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Lawmakers Say Pakistani Tribal Areas Reform Push Has Military Backing

Deliberations are a part of the tribal life. Here, two clan leaders from the Afridi tribe debate the deployment of the Pakistani army to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in late 2001.

For more than a decade Pakistani tanks, aircraft, and artillery pieces have emaciated the country's northwestern tribal areas in its domestic war on terrorism against the Pakistani Taliban.

There are signs that Pakistan's powerful establishment is now backing proposed legislation that aims to integrate the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into the country's mainstream.

Lawmaker Shabuddin Khan represents FATA's Bajaur district in the National Assembly, the lower house of the Pakistani parliament. He says he and his colleagues have the backing of the Pakistani military for the proposed legislation they tabled this week.

The bill aims to integrate FATA into Pakistan's legal and administrative system through a constitutional amendment.

"The corps commander of Peshawar [a military general in charge of the Pakistani war effort in FATA] told us recently that our proposal is fine and nobody will oppose it," he told RFE/RL's Gandhara website.

Khan says Pakistan's powerful army chief, Raheel Sharif, has backed the "paperwork" for the proposed bill.

In an unprecedented show of unity, all 19 FATA lawmakers tabled a bill on September 9. This legislation -- called the 22nd Constitutional Amendment Act 2015 -- calls for granting full citizenship rights to FATA's estimated 7 million residents. It proposes amending Article 246 and 247 to merge FATA into neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and give its residents access to provincial and federal courts.

The region is still currently governed by 19th-century laws collectively called the Frontier Crimes Regulations. Locals say the oppressive laws imposed by the British Raj were only nominally amended in 2011. Under this governance regime, Pakistani laws are not applied to FATA and its residents are subject to discriminatory and abusive judicial proceedings.

The bill is expected to be debated in the Pakistani parliament in October. Khan and his colleagues are lobbying hard to win over political parties, politicians and military generals to secure a consensus and backing for the reforms.

Pakistani law requires a two-thirds majority in both the 342-member National Assembly and 104-member Senate, or upper house of parliament for an amendment to the constitution.

But Akhunzada Chitan, a former FATA lawmaker, says the bill can only be debated if the Pakistani president allows it by issuing an ordinance in favor.

"In recent years, there have been many such efforts, but they had symbolic value only," he told Radio Mashaal. "Without this ordinance, bills tabled by FATA lawmakers cannot be debated or voted on."

Shahjee Gul Afridi, a FATA lawmaker, says streamlining the administrative system in FATA will boost Pakistan's defense because it will free up the country's forces currently stationed there to Pakistan's eastern border with archrival India. Cross-border shelling between the two countries recently escalated dramatically as relations between Islamabad and New Delhi have sharply deteriorated this year.

Currently an estimated 150,000 troops are stationed across FATA, where skirmishes and air strikes are frequent. Since 2004, the Pakistani military has conducted major operations across all seven districts of FATA. Tens of thousands of Pakistani soldiers are now engaged in what is perhaps their biggest offensive in FATA. Operation Zarb-e Azab began in June last year and the Pakistani military claimed it aims is to cleanse the North Waziristan tribal district of terrorists and insurgents.

FATA residents have paid a high price. Tens of thousands of civilians, militants, and soldiers have been killed in the decade-old insurgency. More than 1.5 million FATA residents remain displaced, and the conflict has ruined the economy. Even before the advent of the current conflict, FATA was one of the most impoverished regions of Pakistan, with high unemployment, little healthcare, and single-digit literacy levels for women.

FATA lawmakers hope the destiny of their beleaguered homeland will change because the army and intelligence agencies are backing their reform push.

"We have held meetings with senior [military] officers, and they have acknowledged that the field will be left open for extremists, law breakers, and even the Taliban after the army leaves the area following the current ongoing operation," the FATA lawmaker who was identified told Pakistan English-language daily Dawn.