Pakistan merged large swathes of the restive Pashtun homeland into northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province nearly 18 months ago. The move aimed to grant millions of inhabitants rights and development after military operations restored peace in a region partly controlled by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda for more than a decade.
But few are happy with the pace of reforms in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which once served as a main theater for the global war on terrorism. Amid crackdowns on dissent, the impoverished region is caught in limbo waiting for its former draconian governance regime to be replaced.
“People are really disappointed,” Ghulam Qadir Khan Daur, an author and former bureaucrat, told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “They want to know whether we are still governed by the old system because they do not see the new [governance] system working.”
The previous system kept FATA’s seven districts under British colonial law, which denied an estimated 6 million residents basic human rights enshrined in the constitution. The arrangement also gave bureaucrats unaccountable powers to implement collective punishment of entire clans for the crimes of an individual or anything happening in their territories.
Faced with unprecedented protests by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), a civil rights movement originating in FATA, and in an effort to preserve what it viewed as security gains, Pakistan’s powerful military pushed to merge FATA into the adjacent province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in May 2018. The amendment sanctioning the move was adopted during the last week of the five-year term of the government and popularly elected National Assembly, or lower house of the parliament.
Former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak argues that move has resulted in lackluster administrative, judicial, security, and economic reforms because they lacked any real ownership. “It was largely conceived as an administrative move with no clear ownership and roadmap for implementing the reforms,” he noted.
Daur agrees, saying that while the merger had far-reaching national and regional ramifications, its implementation is far from ideal.
“Everything is being implemented at a snail’s pace,” he said. “Establishing courts and a judicial system is moving slowly. Incorporating the local Levies into the police is also sluggish.”
Currently, most criminal and civil courts for the seven districts are established in their respective bordering districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Prosecution is preliminary or non-existent. The inclusion of an estimated 30,000 Levies and Khasadars, tribal police, into the regular police force is an uphill task. Members of the former are protesting for wages and benefits on par with the police in the rest of the country. They lack training and infrastructure to undertake policing, which is still performed by the army and paramilitary troops in large parts of FATA.
A cursory look at government spending reveals the region’s difficulties. In 2018, Islamabad promised to spend nearly $10 billion on development schemes over a decade. But lawmakers say less than 10 percent of the $540 million Islamabad earmarked for former FATA’s development was spent during the fiscal year of 2019-20.
“The facts on the ground suggest nothing has happened there,” lawmaker Mufti Abdul Shakoor told Radio Mashaal. “There is no monitoring [of spending], and we lawmakers have no role. You won’t see a school or college built in FATA.”
Shakoor’s Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (JUI), an Islamist political party, opposed FATA’s merger into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. JUI, some independent candidates, and other opposition groups protested alleged rigging in July’s provincial parliamentary election that gave FATA 21 seats in the 146-member regional assembly.
But such political attempts failed. Frequent protests across FATA speak to public disappointment. In Miran Shah, the administrative headquarters of North Waziristan tribal district, hundreds of shop owners have protested for over a month demanding compensation for properties that were demolished in Zarb-e Azab.
The last large-scale military operation in FATA aimed to push out the Taliban and allied militants. But it displaced more than 1 million civilians and obliterated Miran Shah and Mir Ali, the region’s two major towns. Across FATA, tens of thousands of civilians were killed and millions displaced by terrorist attacks and military hostilities since 2003.
But Pakistani officials mostly see foreign conspiracy in protests across the region, which arches along its western border with Afghanistan. Since 2017, Islamabad has fenced its nearly 2,500-kilometer border with Afghanistan. The 19th-century Durand Line splits dozens of Pashtun tribes into the two countries. Successive Afghan governments have not recognized the Durand Line as an international border.
“We have to work with the people to thwart conspiracies of external elements,” Prime Minister Imran Khan reportedly said this week. “It is essential the people of the merged areas be taken onboard regarding development projects and efforts being made to solve their problems.”
Iqbal Afridi, a lawmaker of Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf Party (PTI), says their 17-month-old administration has spent considerable time on the merger.
“You need time to ensure a development scheme is feasible,” he told Radio Mashaal. “Our current funds will fall short, and we will be able to deliver within the remaining six months of the year,” he added, citing bureaucratic processes and leadership visits as proof of their commitment.
But Mohsin Dawar, a PTM lawmaker who represents North Waziristan in the National Assembly, sees the byzantine power struggle between the civil and military bureaucracy as the main challenge.
“The civil bureaucracy used to enjoy enormous powers in the region, which prompts them to prevent the new system from becoming operational,” he said. Under the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), the previous governance regime, a civilian bureaucrat called the political agent served as a de-facto ruler with administrative, judicial, and fiscal powers.
“The military, on the other hand, has a huge presence in the area and is also involved in the development and local economy,” he said. The Frontier Works Organization, a military engineering organization, leads development and infrastructure projects and holds mining leases.
Dawar says such military stakes make the anemic civilian administration in Islamabad cautious. “The civilian government doesn’t want to take any steps without the express approval of the military,” he said.
Since its emergence in February 2018, the PTM has campaigned for an end to illegal killings, forced disappearances, and harassment by security forces. But its criticism of the military’s conduct in FATA and other Pashtun regions has attracted harsh rebuttals. Dawar spent nearly four months in prison last year after security forces killed PTM protesters near a check post in North Waziristan.
Islamabad, however, rejects such criticism. After assuming office in August 2018, Pakistan’s civilian government has maintained it is on the same page as the military. Top military leaders have consistently claimed to have cleared FATA of terrorists and to be committed to stabilizing the region.
“The brave tribes of [former] FATA have achieved peace and stability after a lot of hardships and sacrifices,” military spokesman Asif Ghafoor said in April 2018. “Restoration of normal life after kinetic operation is part of the ‘clear-hold-build-transfer’ strategy.”
Elizabeth Threlkeld, deputy director for South Asia at the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, also says FATA’s integration is slow. However, she argues that successful implementation will require long-term government focus and coordination between civilian agencies and the military.
“Without continued top-down and bottom-up pressure from the center and from grassroots supporters in former FATA, implementation is likely to remain slow despite high local expectations,” she noted.
Threlkeld, a former U.S. diplomat, observed FATA closely while posted in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s capital, Peshawar, in the years leading up to its merger. She says incomplete integration could trigger renewed instability at a time when the United States is eyeing an exit from neighboring Afghanistan based on a possible deal with the Taliban.
“Any increase in conflict around a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to put additional pressure on Pakistan's newly merged districts,” she noted. “Were we to see a new influx of refugees from Afghanistan, for example, the governance challenge in former FATA would be enormous at a time when political and judicial systems are already in flux, risking the spread of destabilizing insecurity.”
The seeds of such instability, however, abound in former FATA. Military operations from 2008 to 2014 decimated the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Its remnants, splinters, and allies still threaten the region. Their presence is manifested in periodic attacks, targeted assassinations, and night letters. In some cases, pro-government militant factions have transformed into “surrendered Taliban” or peace committees.
A new war in Afghanistan or major governance failures in former FATA will likely open new avenues for battle-hardened insurgents.
Years of suffering, however, have transformed FATA. A large PTM gathering in Bannu, a city in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that borders North Waziristan, on January 12 underscored its strong appeal because of its campaigning for grievances rooted in former FATA’s past conflicts.
A major letdown in integrating FATA through reforms and development appears to be fueling new grievances.