By: Haris Khurshid*
Pakistan’s Tribal areas remained in the global media headlines soon after the initiation of War on Terror in Afghanistan post 9/11 attacks. These headlines were mostly related to the presence of safe havens for militant groups such as Al Qaeda, Haqqanis, IMU, and the native Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan. Even for fellow Pakistanis the term “Ilaqa e Ghair” or “Land without Law”/”Unknown Territory”, was popular synonym to mention to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) which has its own peculiar laws under Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR).
Under these laws the linchpin of the each tribal region or Agency is the Political Agent (PA) who is accountable to Governor Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who in turn acts as an agent to the President of Pakistan. The laws enacted by Parliament do not apply there and together with selected Maliks the PA oversees developmental works, services delivery, maintenance of order and state’s writ in a Tribal Agency. The FCR empowered political agents by obliging Maliks through Mushahiras (Patronage) to help impose harsh rules like collective punishment to entire families (or even in some cases, the entire Tribe) for the crime of an individual associated with the family or tribe.
In post 9/11 scenario, Taliban insurgency and subsequent Pakistan Army operations to quell it brought mayhem to FATA as scores were killed and thousands were displaced in the ensuing conflict. Schools, hospitals and government buildings were destroyed by Taliban’s relentless campaign while heavy damage was inflicted on the social fabric of the tribal society. Civil-bureaucracy led Political agents had already ceded administrative control to the military in FATA as local Khasadar forces were untrained, ill equipped and exponentially outnumbered by war hardened heavily armed Taliban and other militant groups.
In the aftermath of operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched in June 2015, in North Waziristan and ancillary action Khyber-II in Khyber Agency, militants were dislodged from their last strongholds culminating in the successful first phase of offensive operations. As of now, stability operations have been launched with support of armed forces as Temporary Displaced Persons (TDPs) are returning to their homes and heavy infrastructural development is taking place.
Now that stability is returning to the FATA region, the locals are pushing for a stable and constitutional future for their region. They consider the obsolete administrative model, under the FCR, which failed to deny space to the extremists, as the sole reason of post 9/11 Talibanization of FATA. The politically matured educated youth, businessmen and expatriates from FATA are constantly feeling disenfranchised after seeing fellow countrymen enjoying constitutional protection of freedom of expression, basic human rights and ownership by the state. With exposure to vibrant electronic and social media, they see over-reporting of even minor incidents elsewhere in the country while in FATA media access is virtually barred. Comparatively better sense of social protection in settled areas, presence of law enforcement agencies, courts, ombudsmen and easy access to public services have increased their sense of being considered as the second-class citizens of Pakistan.
The previous government of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) amended some clauses of the FCR but the present government of PML (N) ceased the opportunity by constituting a reform committee to come up with recommendations to decide the future of FATA in an evolving scenario. A committee under the chair of Sartaj Aziz, advisor to the prime minister in foreign affairs, was tasked to consult with all stakeholders upon four options regarding future of FATA i.e. introduce judicial and administrative reforms but keep the status quo, create FATA council on the pattern of Gilgit-Baltistan, separate province for FATA or its merger with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.
On 7th September 2015, 19 parliamentarians from FATA jointly presented the 22nd Constitutional Amendment Bill proposing integration of FATA into KP. Besides, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly on 15th December 2016 adopted a resolution in favor of a FATA merger with KP. Since then major political parties, tribal student councils and social activists are advocating merger of FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which was followed by similar recommendation from Sartaj Aziz committee.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is already home to many people from tribal areas given the close geographical proximity, identical culture and language. The province is sharing its medical facilities, educational institutions, infrastructure and public services with residents of FATA; hence legally bringing seven agencies under administrative control of the KP government, like Malakand Agency, is feasible. However, Molana Fazl-ur-Rehman of JUI (F) and Mahmood Khan Achakzai of Pakhtunkhwa Mili Awami Party (PKMAP) have aligned against the merger calling for FATA’s separate status as province.
The pro-merger proponents allege the role of these leaders as spoilers of proposed FATA reforms. The civil society sees Molana Fazulur Rehman’s opposition as politically motivated because separate FATA province may bolster his political base where JUI (F) has significant presence, while in case of merger they fear the support base would increase for other established parties like Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, Awami National Party, PML(N) and Jamat-e-Islami. Besides, for years the party has benefited from status quo having number of elected parliamentarians and a network of powerful party associated Maliks in tribal areas which may get lost in the process.
The case of Mahmood khan Achakzai is curious as his party has no electoral foot print in the FATA region and has secured only few hundred votes in recent general elections. He is flogging the idea of including wishes of “People of FATA” in the reforms process but one wonders as why the opinion of the majority of FATA’s parliamentarians cannot be construed as the wish of its people. In the national media, some commentators even blame ruling PML (N) for pitching two of its allies against reforms purportedly to delay the proposed cut in share of all federating units from divisible pool. The opposition of JUI (F) and PKMAP can delay or possibly postpone the process of merger which will be a huge setback to the previous efforts of representatives and civil society of FATA. The idea of a separate province has low popularity among people of FATA as the seven agencies are not integrated due to rugged terrain and mainly rely on road links through KP to connect with each other. Also in case of a separate province, these agencies will start challenging each other for resources and central control.
People of FATA have long been denied rights at par with residents of the settled areas which has brewed extremism, socio-economic decline and at times threatened national security. Delaying the merger of FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on one pretext or another will deepen their grievances and dent their belief in the state. Besides patriotic and hardworking people, the region is bestowed with vast natural resources, diverse ecologies, and huge potential of tourism. This is a golden opportunity to bring 4.8 million alienated brave people of FATA into mainstream and encourage their participation in the development of the country. In the age of integration and connectivity, we need to start from our home by extending constitutional authority and rule of law to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
*The author is a blogger with special focus on science, security and international relations.