Source: South Asia Democratic Forum
The recent spate of terror attacks in Pakistan has again put a big question mark on the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP), which was formulated soon after the APS School attack in December 2014 to counter widespread terrorist militancy in the country. Operation Zarb-e-Azb, one of the major offensives against militants in the tribal areas, was deemed as a glaring success by the Pakistani military, who claimed to have broken the back of militants in the country. Yet, even after an extensive PR campaign boasting the success of Zarb e Azb, the militants succeeded in attacking Lahore, Peshawar and Sehwan within a matter of days, killing more than hundred innocent civilians.
The responsibility for these attacks was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban’s splinter Jamat ul Ahrar, a Pakistani faction of ISIS. For long, the state and military establishment had refuted claims that ISIS and its affiliates had formed strongholds in the country, yet the recent attacks proved otherwise. It is not surprising that even after an extensive military offensive against militant outfits, attacks are still originating from Pakistan’s tribal areas adjoining the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, commonly known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). . The Afghan government presents similar claims that the Haqqani network, one of the most notorious Taliban factions, attacks Afghan and NATO installations within Afghanistan from its bases in Fata.
Even as Pakistan was finally looking towards establishing the writ of state authority and peace in the region of Fata, furthermore proposing its merger in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the recent acts of terror put the region (and its reforms) on the back burner. Fata has long been known for its Militants, guns, lawlessness, drugs, kidnapping for ransom, and illicit trade. Pakistanis at large have always called these areas as the Ilaqa-e-ghair (land of the unknown) due to the aforementioned perceptions and associations. Yet, these perceptions are far from reality. Even though the region was used as a springboard for Jihad in the Soviet Afghan war (1979-1989), most of the region was always known for its peace, hospitality and stability. The Khyber agency in Fata was especially known for its historical train line, where a train setting off from Peshawar on the weekends manoeuvred through the hilly railway, stopping at Landi Kotal. This journey was famous among both national and international tourists.
It was only after the post-9/11 NATO/US invasion of Afghanistan that Fata again became a breeding ground and spring board for local and transnational militants fighting against foreign troops in Afghanistan, as well as against the Pakistani state and its people. The situation worsened when the Pakistani military, breaking a decades-old tradition, entered into the Fata region, and started its never ending expedition in the region. The drone attacks coupled with the Pakistani military operations in Fata kept on adding fuel to the raging spiral of violence in the region. However It would be too simplistic to blame the drones and the Pakistani army for the current situation in Fata, as the current lawlessness also grew out of colonial roots in form of the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), enacted in 1901, to control the Pashtun tribes in the tribal areas on the Afghanistan border.
Soon after independence, whereas the rest of the country had a constitution as a governance blueprint, Fatawas kept as a semi-autonomous region for various purposes and reasons. The FCR has historically made Fata a lawless frontier, where the constitution governing the rest of the country is deemed void. Also, the Pakistani state’s decision to persist with this British model, absolving itself from any responsibility of stabilizing Fata, made the Pashtun tribes believe that their region was the “unwanted child” of Pakistan. Fata’s status-quo as an FCR governed region meant that the state had more leverage on how to use this region if it came to conflicts with neighbouring Afghanistan. Hence, with the 1979 Soviet Jihad in Afghanistan, the government, along with the USA and Saudi Arabia, effectively used the region to train Jihadists in its fight against the Soviets.
It is also bewildering that even in this day and age, there still exists a place like Fata in the global network of nations and states, such a place that does not afford its citizens basic human rights. The local tribal Pashtuns living in Fata have long demanded equal citizenry and rights from the state, yet their demands were mostly ignored over the years. It was only recently, in 2015, that a wave of political activism and pressure from civil society along with national and regional Pashtun nationalist political parties forced the Nawaz government to form a committee aiming to introduce reforms in the Fata region. The committee – headed by Prime Minister’s advisor Sartaj Aziz – came up with a number of recommendations, the most popular of which proposed Fata’s merger with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.
For once, the committee and its recommendations gave a semblance of hope to tribal Pashtuns of finally getting their right to be called, and treated as, equal citizens of the country. But to their disappointment, there was a twist in the tale; with two political leaders–the Jamiat – e – ulema e Islam’s (party of the religious scholars) Fazl ur Rehman, and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party’s (national and people’s part of the Pashtuns) Mehmood Achakzai–opposing the merger. Rehman, along with Achakzai, have come forward as staunch opponents of Fata’s merger, calling for a referendum aiming to give the people of Fata the right to decide their future. Many believe that Rehman’s stance stems from his personal interests rather than the interests of the tribal Pashtuns. By calling for a separate province, Rehman believes that his strong religious voter-base in rural parts of Khyber Pakhtunwa and Fata would help him to potentially form a government so long as Fata is declared to be a separate province. Because Rehman is a renowned cleric among the Deobani sect of Sunni Muslims, he is sure of his popularity in the region. Achakzai’s opposition came as a shock to many as its ideological sister Awami National Party (people’s national party) strongly advocates for a merger.
One of the arguments of both Rehman and Ackhzai, criticizing the reforms committee, concerns the haste with which the report of recommendations was prepared. They also blame the committee of only taking a “few maliks (clan heads), and tribal elders” on board. This argument is a little surprising as Fata, culturally and historically, has been represented by its Maliks and Tribal elders. In the current scenario, as the region lacks infrastructure to conduct any form of referendum, a good barometer to gauge the will of the people is either through the tribal elders, or the demands put forward by protestors from Fata. The FATA Sisyasi Ittehad (political alliance), which includes a number of elders and activists from the region, has arranged numerous protests since last year calling for Fata’s merger with KP.
Many supporters of Fata’s merger suspected that any delay in introducing reforms and abolishing the FCR might be linked to Pakistan army’s ongoing operation against the militants, as well as strategies concerning any future “proxy” utility of the region. Such reservations were also quashed recently when the Pakistan Army Chief, General Bajwa, assured of Army’s support in mainstreaming FATA as well as its merger with the KP province. What currently favours Fata is the national consensus developed among the national and regional political parties for mainstreaming Fata. The Pakistan Army’s reassurance on the matter also strengthens the case for the merger and introduction of reforms. Political aberrations, in forms of opposition by the JUI-F and PKMAP, should not serve as a deterrent for holding back the long-overdue reforms in the tribal areas.
The Nawaz-led PML-N government is presented with a huge opportunity to benefit the long-ignored people of Fata. By delaying – or even suspending – reforms, it would do nothing but further alienate the tribal Pashtuns who have always been demanded to prove their unconditional affection and patriotism towards Pakistan. Also, given the current fragile situation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is an ever growing need of establishing peace in the Fata, a process which would benefit both countries. This peace can only be achieved if Fata is brought into the mainstream and is governed under the national constitution, which would ensure equal rights and opportunities for its citizens.
Biography of the author
Farooq Yousaf is a PhD Politics Candidate from Peshawar, Pakistan, currently pursuing studies at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. His research focuses on the role of indigenous conflict resolution methods in countering Insurgency in the tribal areas of Pakistan, whereas he using postcolonial critique as his theoretical framework. Prior to his PhD studies, Yousaf completed his Masters in Public Policy, with concentration in Conflict Studies, from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, University of Erfurt, Germany. He also occasionally consults Islamabad based Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).