FATA at the Crossroads

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By

Ayaz Wazir[1]

With a population of over seven million, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan form a 27,220 sq. km. arch along the country’s border with Afghanistan.The terrain is rugged and mountainous. It is a region where empires once met and it was here that the British   played out their “Great Game” of the nineteenth century which sought to contain the further expansion of imperial Russia.Afghanistan was established as a buffer state and its rulers relied heavily on the support of the fierce and independent Pathan tribes straddling the Pak-Afghan border.After the ouster of king Zahir Shah in 1973, successive Afghan republican regimes, whether secular or Islamic, had to contend with the influence of the tribes.

The second half of the twentieth century saw the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan. It was from the tribal areas of Pakistan that the biggest covert war in history was launched against the occupation forces. It is ironic that the last battle of the Cold War was fought and won for the West largely by the same tribes whose territory, due to no fault of theirs, was to become a haven for terrorist outfits although terrorism is alien to the tribal culture of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions.

The fakir of Ipi, who revolted against the British in 1936 and after the emergence of Pakistan joined the so-called Pakhtunistan movement, is reported to have stated in the final years of his life that his jihad against the British was for freedom rather than for religion.This is probably a misquotation because the tribesmen of the area have always been motivated by religion-inspired nationalism and the thirst for freedom. It was the same quest for freedom that motivated the tribes to fight the British in the Afghan wars of the nineteenth century, the Soviets in the twentieth and the coalition forces in Afghanistan in the twenty-first.

In pursuit of its divide and rule policy, the British Raj deliberately kept FATA isolated from the rest of the country.  The warrior tribes of the area which include the Wazirs, Mahsuds, Afridis, Shinwaris, Mohmands and others were segregated into seven administrative agencies, namely, Bajaur, Khyber, Kurram, Mohmand,Orakzai, North Waziristan and South Waziristan.

Since its independence in 1947, Pakistan thoughtlessly continued with the British colonial policy of isolating the tribal areas. Consequently the quarantined region remained backward. The tribesmen, alongwith thousands of volunteers particularly Arabs, were trained, indoctrinated, financed and armed primarily by the US, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan. After the successful culmination of the jihad which contributed to the collapse of communism, the region was ignored and its people forgotten. What remained were thousands of motivated fighters and the tribal areas became the epicentre of extremist and terrorist violence.

The impact was felt in the seven tribal agencies. For instance Bajaur, which overlooks Afghanistan’s Kunar province, became known in the 1980s and 1990s as the “poppy kingdom.”On 13 January 2006 Ayman al-Zawahiri of the Al Qaida is reported to have survived a US attack at Damadola, which is also considered a stronghold of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi. Bajaur provide recruits for the Taliban. Maulvi Faqir of Bajaur, ranks after BaitullahMehsud as the most influential Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader.

Khyber,which links Peshawar and Kabul, is the base of the Lashkar-e-Islam led by Mangal Bagh. There has been fighting since 2005 between the lashkar and the Ansar-ul-Islam of pir Saifur Rahman. This has been an intra-Sunni conflict between the Barelvis and Deobandis. The forces loyal to Mangal Bagh advanced towards Peshawar in mid-2008 prompting a military response from the government.

Mountainous Kurram, the second largest agency with its headquarters in Parachinar, is surrounded by Afghanistan on three sides. When the post-9/11 military action against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan started, Al Qaida elements were said to have first fled to the Kurram agency although it was reported to be pro-Northern Alliance because of its large Shia population. There has been frequent Shia-Sunni violence in the agency.

Mohmand, sandwiched, as it is by Bajaur and Khyber, hadbeen relatively peaceful. However,Umer Khalid, a Safi tribesman of the agency has emerged after recent fighting as the third most powerful Taliban leader. He has claimed that 26,000 trained militants are under his command.

Orakzai was considered to be one of the better governed agencies but it has witnessed the spill-over of the sectarian conflict from Kurram.

It is North and South Waziristan that has become the centre of Taliban activities. Combined the two agencies have an area of 5000 square miles. Waziristan is inhabited by the powerful Karlani Pathans, the Darwesh Khel Wazirs and the Mahsuds. Although the Wazirs and Mahsuds have ancestral links, for administrative reasons the Mahsudsare a separate tribe.  Waziristan has great strategic importance and is located near the provinces ofKhost, Paktika and Paktia in Afghanistan. As early as 2005, some elements of the Pakistani Taliban declared North Waziristan an Islamic state. In 2007 in South Waziristan, the Taliban loyal to Baitullah Mahsud captured more than 300 Pakistani troops.

Had FATA not been isolated and divided it would not only have been able to better withstand the fallout of the Afghan jihad but the writ of the state would also not have been continuously eroded as is happening now.The British motivation was understandable. They had their own agenda and interests to pursue. A divided Pathan community would not be able to fight against the colonial power. The continuation of the same policies after 1947 is, however, incomprehensible. The most obvious consequence was that the people of the tribal areas were never provided the much needed opportunity to merge with the rest of Pakistan. FATA’s isolation was further compounded by keeping the seven tribal agencies separate from each other.  No roads were built to link them and the few that existed were closed to traffic.  This made travel between the agencies, though they adjoin each other, extremely difficult. Prospective travellers have to first proceed to a settled district and then travel back to the neighbouring agency.  This is just one of the methods of keeping the tribes isolated.  The tribesmen did not opt for isolation.  It was imposed on them and continues to date.  Only locals of the area are allowed to visit FATA without obtaining prior permission from the government.

The people of FATA are still governed through theFrontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) imposed on them in 1901 by the British Raj.  These draconian laws should have been abolished with the emergence of Pakistan as a sovereign nation in 1947.  Unfortunately, this was not to be.   The sacrifices of the tribesmen for the country were ignored and their fundamental right to be treated as equal citizens of Pakistan was denied.  Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s recent statement that the FCR will eventually be abolished is a welcome step in the right direction.  It is hoped that the committee constituted for this purpose follows through and meets the expectations of the people.

Hitherto, governance of these areas through the FCR has been an indirect endorsement by the state of the pre-partition British policy of ‘divide and rule.’  The tribal agencies have never been given the opportunity to unite and the political agents administering them on behalf of the president have been given powers that contradict both the constitution of Pakistan as well asall international conventions on human rights.

The political agent is empowered to:

(i)                 Arrest anyone under his jurisdiction for three years without assigning any reason.  The period can be extended for as long as he wishes and cannot be challenged in any court of law in Pakistan.

(ii)               Punish the entire tribe by seizing, confiscating or demolishing their properties.  A crime committed by an individual becomes the responsibility of the tribe.  Similarly, a tribe is responsible for its territory (landed property).  It cannot be used for action against the government, otherwise, the entire tribe will be held responsible and punished.

(iii)             Nominate members of the jirga (council of elders). Their recommendations are, however, not binding on him.  He has the authority to dismiss them and constitute a new jirga. His orders cannot be challenged in any court.

Traditionally, a jirga is constituted to resolve disputes between individuals and tribes.  The jirga system is used to address and settle all issues in the area.  All criminal and unjust acts are brought to the notice of the jirga. Its members are nominated by the concerned individuals or tribes.  A person’s wealth, status or power holds no value in the pursuit of justice.  The famous tradition of nanawati (seeking help from other tribesmen) further strengthens this system.  The Pathan society in general and the tribesmen in particular ensure, under this tradition that the aggressor agrees to face the jirga or else face the enmity of fellow tribesmen.  This convention ensures that all work within the system.

The provisions of FCR, however, imposed its own form of a jirga amongst the people of the tribal area. Its members are nominated by the political agent.   The political agent also has the authority to annul any decision made by this body and replace the members of the jirgaif its decision is contrary to his wishes.  This form of jirga, with its handpicked members and pressure from the nominating authority, has maligned and corrupted the system which is no longer trusted.  The recently concluded agreements between the government and the dissidents (Taliban) are the outcome of yet another form of government sponsored jirga which has deviated from established practices.  This time the Maliks and other notables of the tribes were bypassed in the decision making process thereby further broadening the gap between contemporary practice and tradition.

If the FCR is abolished then there will be a vacuum that has to be filled.  How does the government tend to supplant a set of laws that have been in force for over a century?  The committees appointed for this task must not disregard tribal customs and traditions in their haste to reform.  The people of FATA would want the existing laws to be replaced by the Shariah,  Other options that may be considered are as follows:

(i)            Drastic amendments to the FCR should be made to make it more acceptable to the people of the area.  A key ingredient in the success of these amendments should be the curtailment of the political agent’s powers.  He should be made accountable under the new system like any other officer in the settled districts of the country.

(ii)            A new set of rules based on tribal customs and traditions should be formulated.  Input from the various tribes of the area is essential for the success of such an endeavour.  A 14-member subcommittee consisting of 2 representatives from each tribal agency should be constituted in order to assist the main committee in formulating these laws.

(iii)            The laws of the land under which the rest of Pakistan functions should be extended to FATA as well.  The prerequisite to this, however, is that the concerned area needs to be developed so that at least the basic amenities of life are at par with the rest of the country. Keeping ground realities of the area in mind, such developmental projects would require at least 3 to 5 years to reach fruition.

Regardless of the system the government will finally adopt, the crucial part of this process will be the transitional phase.  Keeping the volatile situation, particularly in Waziristan, in mind it is essential that a vacuum is not created in any step of this process.  Anything other than a smooth transition will have disastrous consequences.  The withdrawal of FCR in Malakand without providing a substitute and the subsequent misery that the people of the area faced is a prime example of this.

The bureaucracy in Peshawar and Islamabad – the FATA secretariat, working under the NWFP governor, and the States and Frontier Region Division (SAFRON) – has played its role in keeping the tribal areas backward.    They have justified their resistance to any form of political and economic development through false pretexts.  They have established an understanding with a few hundred Maliks.  The interests of the Maliks are looked after, in turn, the Maliks lend support to their policies.  The lack of development in infrastructure and industry in the area that would have provided jobs for the frustrated youth of the region is ample proof that the bureaucracy is not interested in the welfare of the people of FATA.  They are the biggest hurdle in bringing any meaningful reforms in the tribal areas. These organizations require overhauling and reorientation to be able to play a positive role in the area.

Despite funds being allocated by the federal government for development projects in FATA, the two offices mentioned above failed to bring about the social and economic transformationso desperately needed for the area.Presently there is talk of establishing Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) in FATA.  The main purpose of this scheme is to develop the area.Although the project is yet to pass many hurdles in Washington, efforts are already underway in Peshawar to shift the ROZs to settled districts under the pretext of lack of security and instability prevailing in the tribal areas.  Will these projects eventually be destined to the same fate as others before them?  This only time will tell.

On the other side, however, one of the few and far between reforms truly appreciated by the people of FATA was the introduction of adult franchise in 1997.  If the government had consulted the usual Maliks then this too would have been opposed as the Maliks prefer the old system where only they had the right to vote one amongst themselves to the parliament.

The elections that followed proved that the decision was correct.  Tribesmen took great interest in the electoral process. People participated in large numbers even in the problematic areas of South Waziristan.  Surprisingly women also came out and voted for the candidates of their choice.  This amazing phenomenon should have motivated bureaucrats and policy makers to recommend and implement similar reforms such as the extension of the Political Parties Act in FATA.  After all, this is perhaps the only area in the world where adult franchise is allowed yet political parties are banned.

It is high time that we realize the ground realities of FATA and move to rectify and not ignore the blatant issues that need addressing.  The two offices (FATA Secretariat and SAFRON) shouldrestricted to the political aspects of the area whereas an independent organization should be established to cater to the economic and social needs of the people of FATA.

According to official statistics 60 percent of the people are living below the poverty line.   Heavy investment in industry, infrastructure, education and healthcare is needed to bring the standard of living in the area at par with the rest of the country.  Job opportunities will not only alleviate the misery of living below the poverty line but also provide an obstacle for militants in their drive to recruit the frustrated youth of the area.

The isolation of FATA must also end.  People travel to places of their choice freely within the country.  The only place that is inaccessible without prior permission from the government is the tribal belt.  One fails to understand the logic behind our government’s policy of keeping its own people isolated from the world. The whole world is now linked through internet and cell phones making it into a global village, yet FATA is still kept incommunicado living in the stone ages.

The people of FATA need to interact freely with the outside world. The isolation of the area has made it a recruiting centre for militants. The seven tribal agencies are now dominated and controlled by the Taliban. Taliban leaders in places like North Waziristan have gone to the extent of declaring their area an Islamic state. Pakistan needs to reconsider its policy towards the tribal areas if it wantsto win the war against terror.  It cannot win a war against its own people.  Pakistan has already lost more soldiers in this war than the casualties it incurred in wars with India.  Reassessment of the government’s policies towards FATA, innovative solutions and rapid and efficient implementation of these measures are required; otherwise the consequences of complacency can be disastrous for both Pakistan and its allies.


[1]Ayaz Wazir  was the first ambassador of Pakistan from the Waziri tribe. His email address is waziruk@hotmail.com