The South Asia Channel

Forgetting FATA reform

At the time of writing, all of Pakistan’s military and political efforts are being subsumed into the rescue, relief, and recovery effort as the country continues to suffer its most devastating floods in 80 years. The floods have washed away lives, homes and infrastructure, and Pakistan will take years to rebuild. But while the flood ...


At the time of writing, all of Pakistan’s military and political efforts are being subsumed into the rescue, relief, and recovery effort as the country continues to suffer its most devastating floods in 80 years. The floods have washed away lives, homes and infrastructure, and Pakistan will take years to rebuild. But while the flood looms large Pakistan’s militancy problem has not gone away, nor has its need for deep structural and political reform, especially in the areas where militant groups are strongest.

A year has passed since the presidential announcement to introduce reforms in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt. During the period, the country witnessed a constitutional coup, when its parliament undid laws inserted into the constitution by military dictators Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf. However, true political reform in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is still a pipedream, despite the fact that the military is deeply engaged in the region and civilian interventions are necessary to stabilize the violence plagued areas, but lacking. The current reaction to Pakistan’s flooding crisis further demonstrates the effectiveness of the military in the face of civilian government failings, only reinforcing the latter’s shortcomings.

The military advances in the FATA, currently on hold, had been essentially focused on territorial gains and establishing the government’s writ in places lost to the Taliban, in addition to the neutralization of the group’s fighting force. However, strictly military operations do not deal with the root causes of militancy, and the tribal areas still need reforms in basic governance structures to address endemic problems of poverty, lack of education, and to create the health facilities and transportation networks needed to develop tribal areas.

On August 14, 2009, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari announced political, judicial and administrative reforms in the FATA. The announced reform package entailed allowing political parties to function legally in the area, curtailing arbitrary powers of administrators called Political Agents (PA), granting the right to appeal and bail in cases involving the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), which among other harsh restrictions places enormous powers at the disposal of political agents and allows these agents to hold an entire community or tribe responsible for the actions of a single person. The reform package also included audits of funds used in the region and would have exempted woman and children from territorial responsibility cases. The reforms also would have set up an appellate tribunal for the FATA, which currently does not exist.

Most of the political parties and tribesmen welcomed the announced package, while many also advocated completely scrapping the FCR in order to bring the FATA into political mainstream of the country. FATA had virtually become an administrative black hole due to the absence of popular, elected leadership on the national or local level, while the arbitrary use of FCR against tribesmen had relegated them to second class citizens. Lifting the ban on political parties in the region will provide the masses alternatives to the dominance of mullahs, who in the absence of political representation and leadership control the population through mosque and pulpit. It would also allow the region to develop a new generation of political leaders and reduce the impact of the hereditary tribal elders who currently dominate politics in the FATA.

But despite a debate on possible reforms to integrate the FATA into Pakistan’s political structure, the government forgot its promises. The issue was again buried beneath judicial, political, economic, energy and security crises jolting Islamabad, and the government chose inaction over embarking upon drastic changes in the governance of the tribal regions. Though the package offered a ray of hope for tribesmen mired in conflict and poverty, the government has not so far hinted at actual implementation, much to the chagrin of many tribesmen.

There are many other issues that deserve attention even when the government moves ahead with reform plans; divergent views exist over the region’s status and reforms among tribesmen, political parties and tribal elders. And presently the government cannot exercise its writ beyond the fortresses and enclaves of the tribal belt. Khasadar Force, which spearheads security functions in the area, has become obsolete due to its age-old structure, tribal nature and lack of proper training and necessary equipment. When well-armed and battle-hardened Taliban emerged in tribal areas, this ill-trained and under-equipped force was not able to withstand their onslaught and political authorities had no other force or mechanism to face the Taliban. Instead, they locked themselves up in their enclaves and left huge swaths of difficult terrain and people at the mercy of militants.

The Taliban and their affiliates found it easy to control these areas as their heavy-handed tactics forced locals into submission across the region. The fact that administrators and policymakers downplayed the Taliban threat until it was too late offers insights into the obsolete system of governance in the FATA. Now many law enforcement officials privately express their belief that this lawlessness in the tribal belt has directly contributed to the deteriorating law and order situation in settled parts of the province; they argue that unless standard policing and courts are introduced in the area, the security situation will remain unstable.

Prior to the emergence of the Taliban, the region was ruled by political agents-dubbed as half-ambassadors and half-governors and assisted by an assembly of tribal elders (jirga) and hereditary elders. This three-tiered system was not able to control the foreign militants, who used the tribal tradition of refuge for their own ends. The Khasadar system was not able to perform its security function and hundreds of tribal elders were killed across the tribal belt. The presence of the military, has relegated the political administration to a secondary position and now the whole system lies in tatters.

The failure of governance of the past 63 years has made the FATA an administrative failure, an ungovernable entity, and a security problem. Successive Pakistani governments have tried to run the region without real reform, and until 1997 only a coterie of influential elders could vote for those who represented them in the national assembly. FATA was further ignored under Musharraf’s de
volution plan
, and it seems that President Zardari’s announced plans will also go unimplemented, especially given the current crises facing Pakistan. This is ultimately unfortunate, as the situation is ripe for a change in the context of ongoing militancy in the region, and only reforms and economic development can save the region from chaos and put it back on track towards recovery and stability.

Manzoor Ali is a reporter with Pakistan’s Express Tribune.

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