Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has reiterated support for long-awaited reforms that might see the northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) merge into the adjacent province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Amid an acrimonious and often emotional debate over the future of the region, Sharif said a reform package determining the status of restive and impoverished FATA would be part of his cabinet’s next meeting.
“All other speculations [about postponing the reforms] are wrong,” he said on February 9. “On my directions, extensive consultation has been carried out with all the stakeholders including visits by the select [reform] committee to all [tribal] agencies,” Sharif added, referring to the seven FATA districts in official parlance.
Pakistan’s independent Express News TV reported that Sharif said Islamabad is working hard to establish lasting peace in FATA and hopes to achieve consensus over reforms in the region.
Islamabad has been slow in bringing reforms to FATA after reestablishing authority over the vast mountainous region following a decade-long Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgency. More than 50,000 civilians, soldiers, and militants have been killed in insurgent violence and counterinsurgency operations in the seven tribal districts, which forms a 600-kilometer arch along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan. The fighting has also displaced more than 3 million civilians.
Islamabad said returning the displaced to their homes and reforming FATA were two of its top counterterrorism goals after Taliban militants massacred nearly 150 students and teachers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s capital, Peshawar, in December 2014.
Islamabad, however, is engaged in a laborious process to formulate the transformation. In August, a government committee recommended that to end FATA’s status as a colonial holdover Islamabad should merge it into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and embark on a series of reforms extending the rule of law and citizenship rights to FATA’s estimated 7 million to 15 million residents.
The reform package was slated to be adopted into government policy last month. But opposition by Sharif’s political allies prompted the government to remove it from a cabinet meeting agenda this week.
After getting the go-ahead from the cabinet, the reforms will be enacted through legislation.
“The committee’s recommendation to integrate FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in order to mainstream FATA will require a transition period of five years,” the government report noted in August. “Such a gradual approach, if carefully planned, will greatly minimize the likely demerits of the integration.”
The merger will strengthen ties between the majority Pashtun populations of the two regions. A dozen Pashtun tribes make up nearly 99 percent of FATA’s population while Pashtuns make up a majority of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s estimated 30 million people. Rapid urbanization and rampant economic and social changes have prompted FATA residents to acquire businesses and properties in the province. FATA’s bureaucracy is headquartered in Peshawar, and many government departments already serve both regions under one mandate.
There are some, however, who oppose the merger, such as Sharif allies, Pashtun nationalist leader Mahmood Khan Achakzai, and Maulana Fazl-ur Rahman, an astute Islamist politician.
“The government has taken everyone on board apart from the people of FATA,” Achakzai told journalists last month. “Everyone is talking about reforms in FATA, but no one has asked the views of the people for whom the reforms are intended.”
But a coalition of FATA lawmakers, community leaders, lawyers, students, and civil activists forcefully oppose the two leaders. Shah Jee Gul represents the historic Khyber Pass, one of FATA’s districts, in the Pakistani Parliament. He is one of the most ardent advocates of merging FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“We have always been loyal citizens of Pakistan, but we have been rewarded with our basic rights being denied. The removal of FATA reforms packaged from the cabinet agenda is a great tragedy,” he told the Pakistani Parliament on February 8. “[By denying our rights,] you are telling us we are not Pakistanis.”
Many major political parties have backed Afridi and his coalition’s call to launch a protest movement if Sharif’s administration fails to adopt FATA reforms this month.
“Tribespeople will not let anyone work in the government ministries, parliament, prime minister’s house, or the presidency,” he said, threatening a complete shutdown of Islamabad on March 12. “The government will not be able to serve other Pakistanis if it fails to serve us.”
A recent survey by a Pakistani think tank revealed a majority of FATA residents favor their homeland’s merger into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and want Islamabad to immediately abolish the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations. The draconian law established collective punishment of tribes and clans and has been used to torment Pashtun communities for more than a century.
Pakistani public opinion, too, appears to be sympathetic to the merger and reforms. The hashtag #MakeFATAPakistan trended on Twitter for two days as most major political leaders pressed Sharif to swiftly enact the reforms.
“No rehabilitation and reform can take place in FATA without its merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on which there is consensus amongst all stakeholders,” opposition leader Imran Khan wrote on Twitter.
In a February 9 editorial, the Pakistani daily Dawn advised Sharif to leverage the reforms as a major political accomplishment similar to the 2010 constitutional amendment granting enhanced autonomy to provinces.
“For Mr. Sharif, a historic opportunity beckons, akin to the 18th Amendment passed by the last parliament,” the editorial noted. “The unreasonable objections of minor political allies should not be allowed to dominate.”