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Pakistani Tribal Areas Face Long Road To Stabilization


FILE: Residents of the town of Bara in the Khyber tribal district debate the fate of minority Sikhs threatened by a fanatical cleric in 2002.

In an election season, Pakistan’s political parties are vying to take credit for historic legislation granting equal rights to millions among the Pashtun minority and merging their homeland with the mainstream.

The merger of the northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province materialized only after Pakistan’s powerful military pushed for its adoption before the parliament’s term expires this week.

Yet realizing administrative, judicial, security, and economic reforms will be a lengthy process susceptible to setbacks and controversies. Political and social problems exacerbated by FATA’s status as a key theater in the global war against terrorism for the past 15 years are equally pressing.

Mountainous FATA forms an arc along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan. Its status as a buffer against Tsarist Russia, the Soviet Union, and Afghanistan outlived the first two but created one of the world’s largest ungoverned spaces where poverty is rampant and health care, education, and telecommunications are limited.

To the detriment of its nearly 6 million residents, narcotics trafficking, criminality, and terrorism have prospered in the region. Home to nearly two dozen major Pashtun tribes, their absorption into a state system presents unique problems.

Islamabad seems cognizant of the challenges. On May 28, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain signed the FATA Interim Governance Regulation, 2018, which will govern FATA until it merges with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by 2020.

However, former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak, a key advocate of FATA reforms, says the new regulations are a continuation of the British colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), which established collective punishment of Pashtun tribes and clans for the crimes of an individual. In the absence of accountability and oversight, FATA’s governance regime enabled bureaucrats to twist FCR provisions and establish fiefdoms.

“While celebrating the achievements, we shouldn’t drop our vigilance and struggle to guard against authoritarian schemes,” he wrote. “No to FCR in a new form.”

Sartaj Aziz, a senior official who spearheaded the government committee tasked with crafting FATA’s reforms, says the interim arrangements are in line with the law and omit collective punishment and other offensive FCR clauses.

“The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has the power to do away with these interim arrangements,” he told Pakistan’s Geo TV. “We have also allocated funds for establishing courthouses and judicial complexes in each FATA district.”

Aziz, an economist, says Islamabad plans to allocate more than $1 billion over the next decade to bring FATA on par with the rest of the country and compensate for the neglect the region has suffered since Pakistan’s independence in 1947.

Getting the politics right is crucial for stabilizing FATA. Tens of thousands of FATA residents have been killed in terrorist attacks and counterterrorism operations by the military, and millions were displaced.

The Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM) is a civil rights movement demanding a probe of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of Pashtuns. While the movement emerged from FATA this year, it is unlikely to be overshadowed by the region’s merger.

“PTM is our only platform to raise voice for peace in our homeland and to ask for an accountability for the killings and disappearances here,” the movement’s leader Manzoor Pashteen told supporters on May 27.

Islamabad has rejected the PTM’s accusations. The timing of its push for reforming the tribal areas is seen as an effort to take steam out of its protest campaign that has united Pashtun intelligentsia and attracted large crowds across Pakistan.

But the question of FATA’s merger divided Pakistan’s estimated 30 million Pashtuns. Some FATA residents, most political parties, and civil society across Pakistan supported it, while the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, a secular party, and the Islamist Jamiat Ulam-e Islam opposed the move. They were joined by some residents campaigning for a separate province.

Aziz’s committee and an opinion survey conducted in 2016 supported absorbing the region into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where most residents are Pashtuns and many FATA residents already live and work.

Any missteps by Islamabad will add to the PTM’s list of grievances. It will also strengthen Kabul’s now meek opposition to the move. Successive Afghan governments have not formally recognized the Durand Line, the colonial-era border dividing the Pashtuns into Afghanistan and British India in 1893.

Kabul also counted the tribal areas as its sphere of influence to the extent that the Afghan Borders and Tribal Affairs Ministry is tasked with maintaining contacts with tribes on both sides of the Durand Line.

“The Pakistani Parliament has decided to integrate the tribal areas into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa when a military [warlike] situation prevails,” noted a May 26 statement by the Afghan presidential palace. “Every decision about the fate of the tribal areas must be made in a stable environment in light of local views so it can be truly representative of the people’s wishes.”

Islamabad, however, rejected the criticism. “The principles of noninterference and nonintervention in the conduct of bilateral relations need be scrupulously adhered to by Afghanistan,” Mohammad Faisal, a spokesman for the foreign office, wrote on Twitter. “Our parliament’s decision reflects the will of the people of Pakistan.”

Khattak says ending FATA’s status as a militant hideout is key for stabilizing the region. “Afghan Taliban pockets are still using the area,” he wrote. During a recent protest in North Waziristan, one of the seven districts in FATA, thousands pressured authorities to adopt security measures to end a string of recent murders.

“FATA wouldn’t see peace and stability as long as Pakistan doesn’t revisit its policy of supporting the Afghan Taliban,” Khattak noted.

Islamabad claims it has defeated terrorism on its soil by eliminating all terrorist sanctuaries in FATA. Pakistani officials repeatedly reject accusations that they harbor militants.

"We must begin with the trust that neither covets an inch of the other's territory nor lets its land be used against the other," Pakistan's army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, was quoted as telling an Afghan delegation on May 27.

Pakistan has done little homework on the complexities of absorbing Pashtun tribes. Disputes over land and property have been a hallmark of life in the tribal areas, where most land is still communally owned by clans. Only Kurram, one of the FATA districts, has experienced some land settlement. Now that the various government organizations will need land in the region, it will be a difficult task to define private property and property entitlements.

Taxation is another issue. Asad Qaisar, speaker of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s provincial parliament, has asked Islamabad to exempt FATA and the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) from taxation for a decade.

PATA consists of eight districts in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and is represented in its assembly. Seven districts form the Malakand Division. Unlike FATA, PATA was not administered under the FCR. Parts of PATA, particularly the scenic Swat Valley, also suffered from the Taliban insurgency.

“Both FATA and PATA have been exempted from taxes historically,” Qaisar noted in a letter to the speaker of the National Assembly on May 27. “These areas have suffered the most from insurgencies and mass internal displacement.”

Zaigham Khan, a development expert and anthropologist, sees challenges for FATA in a political system where patronage plays a major role in securing development schemes. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s most developed parts around the capital, Peshawar, have long garnered most of the resources while peripheral areas in the province’s south and north remain underdeveloped.

“Is there a guarantee that subsequent Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments will not treat FATA in a similar manner?” he asked.

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, the editor of RFE/RL's Gandhara website, is a journalist specializing in coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. 

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