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Gandhara Podcast: Assessing Pakistan’s Tribal Areas Reforms

FILE: In the absence of state courts, parties to a conflict often make heated arguments while making their case before a tribal jirga or council. Here, the residents of the town of Bara in the Khyber tribal district debate the fate of minority Sikhs threatened by a fanatical cleric in 2002.

A northwestern Pakistani region dubbed by former U.S. President Barack Obama as “the most dangerous place in the world” is finally getting some positive press.

Earlier this month, the Pakistani cabinet decided to change the status of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into a regularly administered region by eventually merging it into the neighboring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

After the reform package is legislated into law through a constitutional amendment and presidential decrees, FATA’s status as a colonial holdover will end. The century-old Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) will cease to be the law of the land. For generations, the draconian law violated the basic rights and enforced collective punishment (for the alleged crimes of one person) of the Pashtun tribes, clans, and communities that make up the estimated 7 million to 15 million residents of FATA.

The reforms will extend the jurisdiction of Pakistani courts to FATA, and its resident will enjoy all rights enshrined by the country’s supreme law. FATA will have representation in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial parliament and will also have an elected local government system.

With more than 50,000 civilians killed and at least 3 million FATA residents displaced during more than 10 years of unrest -- which saw the Taliban and allied extremist movements periodically controlling parts of FATA -- Islamabad has committed $1 billion a year in development funds in addition to its current investments. FATA residents will have a greater share in government jobs and scholarships.

Tribal leaders, politicians, and activists, however, are anxious that a new law, the Riwaj Regulations for Tribal Areas, might prove to be “FCR lite.” They are concerned that Pakistan’s wily bureaucracy will find a way to keep the region as a fiefdom with new nomenclature. There are questions over the resources allocated to the region and the lengthy timeline envisioned for its mainstreaming.

Despite the reforms enjoying widespread backing among FATA’s population, Pakistani political parties, civil society, and the media, at least two political parties and some interest groups are opposed.

To assess the consequential reforms, we turned to former Pakistani lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak, who joined the discussion from Islamabad. His secular Awami National Party was at the forefront of demanding the reforms. Also participating in the discussion is author Ghulam Qadir Daur. A native of Waziristan, his book Cheegha – the Call is invaluable for understanding the predicament of FATA.

I pitched in from Prague. FATA, where I was born and raised, has always held a fascination for me and has been a major focus of my reporting and research. RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir moderated our discussion from Washington.

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Gandhara Podcast: Assessing Pakistan’s Tribal Areas Reforms
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The views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.