Since its creation, Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have been institutionally and socially disconnected from the mainstream. A territory governed by federally appointed Political Agents, and the role of “Maliks” only perpetuated the feudal order in place. The power accorded to the agents in “handling inter-tribal disputes over boundaries or use of natural resources for regulating trade in natural resources with other agencies” is evident of the skewed structure of governance. Continuation of the colonial era draconian law Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) added to the existing problems, especially with its provision of collective punishment and the role of Jirgas as the dispensers of justice in civil and criminal cases. Absence of formal legal jurisdiction also meant that anyone, after committing a crime in Pakistan could escape into the region, thereby seeking refuge in lieu of protection from the tribal leaders.
Efforts had been made, especially from the time of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, to integrate FATA into Pakistan with the establishment of a Committee under Major General (Retd.) Naseerullah Babar, the then KPK governor, with the aim to make it a part of NWFP, but no progress could take place once General Zia’s coup derailed the progress. Full adult franchise was extended to the region in 1996, enabling the people to elect representatives from FATA to the National Assembly during the 1997 general elections, but this did not give the representatives right to legislate for the region.
FATA came into the news once again when America’s “War on Terror” forced the Al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan to take shelter in this region and enmesh with the Tribal societies. Several factors, including FATA’s porous borders with Afghanistan, its backward and remote status, Taliban’s anger with Pakistan’s acquiescence to America’s Afghan policy, combined with the feudal social structures (which made the downtrodden sections of society dependent on Arab funded extremist seminaries) made the region volatile, one of its after effects being the creation of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. After several committee reports which went unimplemented, efforts gained pace after 2014 Peshawar school attack, following which National Action Plan (NAP) report released immediately in its aftermath, making FATA integral to the reform agenda. Besides improvements in region’s security structure, abolition of FCR and integration of FATA with KP were NAP’s key priorities.
In November 2015, the Prime Minister set up a six member FATA Reforms Committee “to propose a concrete way forward for the political mainstreaming of FATA area”, with the aim of devising an overall complete reforms package for the region. After numerous debates, the Supreme Court and High Court (extension of jurisdiction to Fata) Act 2017 was unanimously passed by the passed by the lower house of the parliament, thereby extending the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the Peshawar High Court to the FATA.
The developments show there is a unanimous opinion among civil and military establishments over FATA’s reform process. While on paper, the proposed reforms promise benefits to FATA’s inhabitants and Pakistan’s overall security situation, politicization of the issue has put the reforms agenda at risk.
Even before these reforms have seen light, political squabbling has already begun with political parties fighting over the efficacy of the reforms, busy mobilizing opinions.
While a cautious approach is needed over a sensitive region like FATA, the prevailing state of affairs could defeat the larger purpose of stabilizing the region and putting it on the positive development trajectory. The fact that FATA’s inclusion into KPK would add 23 seats to KP provincial assembly (as per the Constitution (30th Amendment) Bill, 2017 introduced in May) has added to growing anxiety among political parties, as it sets stage for new political equations and calculus.
Regional parties like JUI-F and Mahmood Khan Achakzai led Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (also an ally of PML-N), while supporting the abolition of FCR, lobbied against FATA’s merger with KPK, citing impediments to self-determination of Pashtuns.
Also, the issue of the monopoly of judicial power wielding Jirgahs is under question (which stands to be diluted once the court rule is extended once the Fata jurisdiction bill is cleared by Senate and gets presidential approval), also found strong support from Maulana Fazlur Rahman, who has been strongly mobilizing the tribals to oppose any policy change in this regard. Jirgah meetings in FATA’s various parts - taken over by both JUI-F and MAP, have called - staged protests, attempting to hijack the narrative and portraying as sole representatives, negotiating with the government on behalf of FATA.
The extension of KP Police to FATA has been opposed by some sections of tribals, who felt that a sudden introduction of a policing setup such a set up would alienate the people. While Numerous meetings have been held between the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Home and Tribal Affairs Department as well as the KP Police mulling over proposals regarding FATA’s police structure, discussing issues like “regular policing, identify tribal sensitivities, utility of the existing Levies, ascertain training of levies and Khassadars”, it is yet to be ascertained whether FATA’s representatives have been taken into confidence of not.
Ruling PML-N also came under severe criticism for failing to introduce the FATA reform bill in December (an attempt which comes shortly after the Rewaj bill was flayed by opposition as PMLN’s delaying tactic), as it borrowed more time yet promised the implementation, a move seen as the party falling hostage to blackmail from its allies, especially with the elections around the corner. Hence, the government was forced to change the terminology from “merger” to “mainstreaming”.
An attitudinal shift is also needed on the part of the state and the military establishment on how FATA continues to be neglected irrespective of the structural impediments in its governance. One of the biggest threats the agency is the presence of thousands of active landmines, a legacy of the military operations and communal feuds in the region, and problems increased after the returning Internally Displaced Persons (some 1.5 million in numbers) began to be affected. According to Pakistan Red Cross Society, around “2,000 cases of landmine blasts were reported in FATA during the past few years.” The failure of state agencies to take cognition of these sufferings led to the creation of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement. Although formed with removal of landmines as one of its key demand, the movement metamorphosed into a long march, rallying for a different cause, yet closely related with the alienation of Pashtuns. The killing of a young Waziri man, Naqeeb Mehsud in a fake encounter in Karachi by a notorious police officer set the stage for Pashtun Long March, which besides mobilizing Pashtuns from KP and Balochistan also witnessed participation of FATA inhabitants protesting against the state’s apathy, led by Manzoor Pashteen, young activist from South Waziristan.
The ten day long agitation in Islamabad did end after government gave assurances, but the event also comes across as a wake-up call for both Islamabad and Rawalpindi that it is high time FATA reforms are carried out with sincerity and avoid being reduced to a conflict among political egos.
Prateek Joshi works as a Research Associate with Vivekananda International Foundation, a New Delhi based policy think tank. Previously, he has worked on a policy project with Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, an autonomous think tank funded by the Ministry of Defence.