One of the less heralded aspects of the PTI’s election win is the overwhelming margin of its victory in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. One could argue that this general election was the first instance of a party having been elected nationwide on the basis of its political strength – in not Punjab but in fact Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
While Punjab continues to be the province in which a numerical advantage is the basis for any election, the PTI’s emergence as a national party is rooted in the deep support Imran Khan enjoys across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – eroding both the traditional hold of the Pakhtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) and the various fortresses of political power enjoyed by religious parties, especially the JUI-F and the JI. Moreover, the PTI has established a province-wide base of support that extends across the five key regions in Khyber Pakhtukhwa, winning seats in the wider northern KP region of Swat-Dir-Buner, the Hazarewal region, decimating its competition in Peshawar Valley, winning in the traditional JUI-F strongholds of southern KP, and securing an overwhelming majority of seats in the newly merged tribal districts of the former so-called ‘Fata’.
The manifestations of the social and political processes that have essentially overturned the dominance of traditional parties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa began in 2013 with the PTI’s slim margin of victory and its establishment of a coalition government in the province. But the processes have been at play for much longer. Though it is unpleasant (and often deemed unhelpful) to reminisce, the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – particularly those in tribal areas – have endured almost four decades of instability, violence and extreme levels of institutional dysfunction.
A young lady born in October 1999 would have no memory of pre-9/11 KP. Her memories are shaped largely by terrorism and violence. From December 2007 onwards, when the TTP began its terrorism in Pakistan, no part of the province, no sector of the economy, no aspect of society has been spared the brutality of terrorist attacks, suicide bombs, and fedayeen blitzkriegs. The national memory of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s suffering is populated by images of the carnage at the Army Public School in Peshawar on that dark December 16 of 2014 – but the consciousness of the young Pakhtun, Hazarewal and Gujjar adult of the province has been framed and shaped by various versions of the APS attack for the entire duration of their lifetime.
While ordinary parents in KP have had to raise children under the dark clouds of TTP and LeJ terror, parents in tribal areas have had to manage even more complex circumstances, navigating the virtually constant war that has been waged in their region since 2007. As entire tribes were left orphaned by the widespread slaughter of their maliks, families in the tribal areas had to negotiate their safety, often with unscrupulous elements, just to survive.
The sacrifices of the brave men and women of the armed forces in the post-2014 scenario have dramatically helped reduce the potency and effectiveness of terrorists across the country. And yet, at the same time, the human impact of the successful operations conducted against terrorists has exacerbated an already heightened and completely justified sense of deprivation in the tribal areas. These areas have now voted with the rest of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the province at large has now voted with the rest of the country – all for the PTI. This convergence or political alignment represents a unique and perhaps narrow window of unprecedented opportunity to strengthen Pakistan – by addressing the legitimate and urgent deprivation of the seven newly merged tribal districts of KP.
This opportunity is all the more pronounced when we add two additional fortuitous factors to the fact that the PTI has been voted for in the tribal areas, as well as being in power in Peshawar, in Lahore and in Islamabad. First, the seven agencies of the former Fata region have just recently been ‘merged’ into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as districts within the province. Second, the PTI government in Peshawar is not a novice, but a five-year veteran. Its superstar ministers from 2013-2018– like Atif Khan and Shahram Tarakai – will be given an even greater degree of autonomy to perform even better than they had in their rookie tenure as rulers of the province. To top it all off, a number of highly qualified, key individuals in the PTI brain trust and in key positions belong to Khyber Pakhtukhwa, such as the de-facto federal minister for human resources, Adviser for Establishment (and former chief secretary) Shehzad Arbab, and the former McKinsey partner, and now finance minister for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Taimur Khan Jhagra.
In short, KP now has both the administrative authority and the technical prowess to develop a sophisticated and urgent plan of action to rapidly develop the former Fata region. Doing so is not an exercise in administrative reform, or fiscal management, but a nation-building imperative with unique and urgent national security implications. Pakistan’s enemies are forever seeking opportunities to convert the legitimate grievances of honest and decent Pakistanis into narratives that undermine the country and its most powerful and finest institutions. To neutralise the enemy has never been more urgent than it is in the newly merged districts of KP today. Luckily, all the stars are aligned, and a few some simple policy measures can counter any of the vile designs that Pakistan’s enemies may harbour with respect to aggrieved Pakistanis in the tribal areas.
First, the current principal secretary to the prime minister, Azam Khan, has already served as additional chief secretary in KP. No one understands how vital the ACS’ role is in the province. A new ACS post, dedicated to the mechanics and financing of the merger and integration of the seven tribal districts, headed by a native of the region, must be established.
Second, the Sartaj Aziz Fata committee’s proposal for an annual allocation of Rs90 billion, in addition to the roughly Rs20 billion already allocated to the region, must be adhered to. More important than the allocation is the utilisation and timely expenditure of these funds. Also crucial is that these funds are ring-fenced, so that they are used exclusively in Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, Mohmand, Bajaur, North Waziristan and South Waziristan.
Third, the allocations of these funds must be assured by the federal government, and must be protected from becoming controversial by attempting to carve out the funds from the existing allocations or shares of other provinces in the existing NFC. Any debate that gives the impression that any part of Pakistan is doing the tribal districts any favours by financing rapid development there will undermine the entire exercise. The people of these regions have a right to live in better conditions than what they have been subjected to. This is not a favour, it is an overdue responsibility. Similarly, expressions of grievances must not be treated with derision or contempt, but with compassion and patience.
Fourth, development expenditure must address both service delivery and infrastructure. Key services such as health and education are just as important as key infrastructure needs, such as roads, electricity transmission and broadband accessibility.
Finally, the people of Fata must visibly be included in the processes that will determine how they are served. In less than two years, there will be an election to add MPAs from the tribal areas to the KP provincial assemblies. Until then, the elected MNAs of the region, as well as prominent and accomplished tribesmen that have served Pakistan for decades, such as Lt Gen (r) Ali Jan Orakzai, Ayaz Wazir and Rustam Shah Mohmand must be engaged in a dialogue by the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as it integrates, merges, and normalises the region formerly known as Fata.
All Pakistanis must pray that the PTI succeeds in utilising this unprecedented opportunity to strengthen the country through how it governs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.