By Mark Schneider
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is Pakistan’s impoverished, wild west region, bordering Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al Qaeda have established a stronghold to plan their attacks on Kabul, Islamabad, and New York City.
If the Pakistani government’s current operation in South Waziristan is planning to dislodge the Pakistan and Afghan Taliban and their al Qaeda allies in the FATA successfully, Pakistan’s leaders should pay attention to law and history as well as military tactics. For starters, any military operation should be targeted and should avoid yet another humanitarian crisis. More than two million Pakistanis were internally displaced persons as a result of this year’s battles in the Swat Valley. More than a million FATA residents already have been displaced at one point or another over the past seven years, and many more are fleeing the conflict zone.
Under former President Musharraf, the military engaged in an appeasement strategy, buying time by cynically signing flawed ceasefire agreements with the Pakistan Taliban, knowing they would not be observed but hoping to minimize military casualties. After the umpteenth suicide bombing inside Pakistan, the population finally said enough. While there is some cooperation with the U.S., and U.S. drone-fired missiles have eliminated some al Qaeda linked extremists in the FATA, it has yet to be seen if the Pakistani military will finally take on the broad range of home-grown and foreign militants.
In the FATA, where 60 percent of residents live below the poverty line, the lack of physical protection, legal rights and economic opportunity for largely subsistence farmers has enabled easy militant recruitment. Militants are relatively free to proselytize, train suicide bombers and plan attacks into Afghanistan, against U.S. and NATO supply convoys, and against Pakistan national and provincial governments. They had little regard for civilian casualties before and have recently multiplied their terrorist attacks against civilian targets — whether foreign-used hotels or local marketplaces. More than three hundred civilians have been killed in successive attacks countrywide in the past month alone.
For the past seven years, the military’s policies of applying indiscriminate force, followed by appeasement deals, allowed the militants to entrench themselves in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Even if the military were now to launch an all-out operation, it would fail to permanently free these isolated terrains from extremist military control if the Pakistani government does not plan for what happens when the shooting stops.
Succeeding in the FATA requires more than a short-term military campaign. Currently the normal laws of the land do not apply to the FATA; rather, the FATA is governed by an archaic colonial-era legal framework that has hobbled its economic growth and denies basic constitutional rights and political freedoms to its residents.
If the militants are to be defeated, underlying conditions need to be changed starting with the repeal of the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), under which a citizen may be arrested and jailed merely for belonging to the same tribe as someone suspected of a crime. The notion of collective punishment is contrary to international law, yet it is the most-widely applied regulation in the FATA, and the one that produces the most outrage from citizens. In 2004, more than seventy children were jailed for crimes allegedly committed by their relatives. Such sentences cannot be appealed. The political agent (PA), each area’s top bureaucrat and in some cases, the critical link in a chain of corruption, has carte blanche to mete out justice and is not subject to oversight. In addition to incarceration, the PA can enforce a fine, seize property, or shut down businesses at his discretion.
These laws not only violate human rights, they undermine state building and economic development. One tribal elder told the International Crisis Group in July, “Every time [the agency’s administration] needs to go after someone from my particular tribe they shut down my company in Peshawar. Collective responsibility makes legitimate business much harder.”
Lack of oversight on PAs also risks donor dollars benefitting the civil and military bureaucracy and FATA elites, particularly the maliks (tribal elders) instead of reaching the people who need it most. Although many international aid organizations make good faith efforts to engage the local communities, given no choice but to work through the FATA’s dysfunctional institutions, their ability to deliver aid is gravely hampered.
Only a small amount of USAID’s $750 million aid program for the FATA has actually has made it out to the area since 2007, given the very real concerns regarding security, transparency and potential for benefiting the wrong recipients. Working directly through existing Pakistani institutions now, in the absence of tangible political and administrative reforms, could well result in more corruption. The U.S. must urge the PPP-led government to follow through on its promises to integrate the FATA into the mainstream, extending the rule of law, constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights, and the protections of the courts and police to FATA residents.
Under President Asif Ali Zardari, several reforms to the Frontier Crimes Regulations already have been announced, including exempting women and children under 16 from collective punishment and curbing some of the PA’s unchecked powers. These actions have received widespread public support but they have not yet been enacted and do not go far enough. A wholesale repeal of the FCR is necessary to effect real change.
The Swat Valley was an example of planning a military campaign, but not planning the consequences. For the Pakistani government to regain legitimacy and establish goodwill in the FATA, complementary short- and long-term plans should be implemented to provide basic services and to revive FATA’s war-torn economy, even in the midst of the current militant campaign — which could create up to a quarter of a million new displaced persons. The government, with USAID and its NGO partners’ support, and with the assistance of U.N. agencies, must also address the vast humanitarian crisis of FATA’s IDPs. In the short-term, the government must focus on providing relief — at least through the coming winter. A parallel longer-term plan should enable resettlement of the IDPs as soon as their communities are secure and with an economic jump-start in the form of seeds, fertilizer and livestock for small farmers, and credit and technical assistance for businessmen and entrepreneurs.
Economic and relief planning and programming should be paralleled by the full political reforms that give FATA citizens the same civil rights as other Pakistanis, with priority on the rule of law. If that occurs, the short-term benefits of militarily dislodging the extremists may be the foundation for sustainable governance that gives local communities a reason to reject the insurgents when they try to return.
Mark Schneider is Senior Vice President at the International Crisis Group, which recently released a report entitled “Pakistan: Countering militancy in the FATA,” advocating comprehensive political reforms in the tribal regions.
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