Since the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, and especially during the course of Pakistan army’s full-fledged military operation in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan in the past four years, the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have seen a grand transformation of power from tribal chieftains to religious extremists.
On March 27, by announcing the repeal of Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR), which has been the principal source of injustice hailing from colonial era, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani has taken the first step in not only reversing this transformation but also going beyond it in terms of integrating FATA into the country’s mainstream provincial and federal administrative, judicial and parliamentary political structure.
Amending the FCR was one of the important items on the agenda of reforming FATA in the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) manifesto for February 18 election, meant to enable a right of Appeal to the Peshawar High Court and further to the Supreme Court of Pakistan against all convictions. This is part of the ruling party’s plan for restoring governmental authority in tribal areas and stopping the pro-Taliban forces from using them to mount across-border attacks in Afghanistan.
Other initiatives that the PPP leadership intended to take for the purpose include the extension of the laws of Pakistan to FATA, such as the Political Parties Act, increasing FATA seats in the NWFP Provincial Assembly directly elected by adult franchise according to the population of each Agency. Political reforms, as stated in the manifesto, were to be accompanied by major economic developmental initiatives, including declaring FATA a tax-free zone.
Twelve years ago, it was also the PPP government led by Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto that had taken a bold step to introduce adult franchise in FATA, which helped marginalize the power of the traditional power wielders, the Maliks, but only to an extent, as political parties not been allowed to operate in the region. This factor, and the continuing Afghan war and army operation in parts of FATA, has led to the assertion of pro-Taliban Mullahs in the region.
The influence of some 35,000 tribal elders called the Maliks, who acted as intermediaries between the Federal Government represented by Political Agents (PA) and over 3 million tribal population, had somewhat declined even during the days of the Afghan jihad. However, after the end of this jihad, FATA and Afghanistan’s border regions with it became a training hub for jihad in Kashmir and elsewhere, which further reduced the influence of the Maliks. Whatever influence the Maliks had in the region has been reduced especially in the aftermath of the fall of Taliban in Afghanistan, as a direct outcome of the pro-Taliban activity in FATA and the inability of the Musharraf regime to handle it electively.
What Went Wrong
It is often argued that the recent radical transformation of power from Malik to Mullah in FATA has occurred as a direct consequence US and NATO military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s army operation in the tribal region. This may be partly true. A more important reason in this context, however, has been the consistent denial of a fair and just legal, administrative and participatory system to the people of FATA. Consequently, there has always been a political vacuum, which has been filled by the pro-Taliban Mullahs with above-mentioned developments acting as a catalyst.
Gone are the days when secular Pushtun nationalists held sway in the Frontier province. Back in the mid 70’s, the state of Pakistan in order to counter the Afghan support to Pashtun nationalists had itself sponsored the Islamists from Afghanistan, providing them with sanctuary. The rest of the story about the factors and the forces behind the consistent rise of religious militancy in the region during the days of the Afghan jihad and its aftermath is too frequently told.
In retrospect, it is only by assimilating the tribal belt into mainstream Pakistani society, politics and economy that the process of Talibanization can be effectively reversed. The government seems to be serious about reforming FATA. However, for the purpose, it has to consistently build upon its declared intention of repealing FCR or making major amendments in it so that the Executive and Judicial authorities should be separated.
By allowing political parties to operate in FATA and undertaking a host of other democratic and progressive steps, the political vacuum created by an inherently unrepresentative system revolving around the arbitrary powers of the Political Agents and privileged status of some 35,000 Maliks can be replaced with a truly representative structure. The real issue in FATA is not to hand over power back to the Malik from the Mullah, but to go a step further and let the people have a genuine say in their future.
In December 2006, the International Crisis Group had published a comprehensive report on the political situation in FATA, titled “Pakistan’s Tribal Areas: Appeasing the Militants.” The recommendations in this report should be worth considering for the new government. Among others, these include: Integrating FATA into Northwest Frontier Province as a Provincially Administered Tribal Area (PATA), under executive control of the province and jurisdiction of the regular provincial and national court system and with representation in the provincial legislature; removing restrictions on political parties in FATA and introduce party-based elections for the provincial and national legislatures; and implementing Article 8 of the 1973 Constitution, which voids any customs inconsistent with constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights.
Access column at weeklypulse.org