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March 1, 2017

From war to reform


March 1, 2017

John Rees writes in his great work ‘Imperialism and Resistance’ that “Alexis de Tocqueville once said ‘the most dangerous moment for a bad government is generally that in which it sets about reform’. But the fate of Charles I show[s] that resistance to reform can be just as dangerous.”

The above paragraph aptly sums up the situation regarding reforms in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (Fata). There is a close correlation between conflicts, wars and reforms. Reforms are, in one way or the other, considered a prerequisite for conflict transformation and sustainable peace. However, as John Rees pointed out, reforms can be easily developed into a source of new conflicts if people get a sense that they are a weakness of the ruling elites.

As a war-torn country, Pakistan looks at reforms as essentially a conflict resolution strategy – aimed at mainstreaming the long neglected and violent areas of the country. The reforms in Fata are being presented as an integral part of the National Action Plan (NAP). Why are reforms being considered inevitable at this stage? Why is a new social contract necessary for the people of Fata?

Paraphrasing Lenin, one can say that neither can the ruling elite rule in the old ways nor can people want to live in the old ways. The old social contract in Fata and the social base on which it relies have been destroyed by militants. The organised resistance initially started under Taliban leader Naik Muhammad, “the Pathan ‘Robin Hood’” – according to a Telegraph report – who “thumbs his nose at Islamabad”. Both the old traditional classes and the political administration had been unable to control the situation before troops were moved against the insurgents. As the conflict between the militants and the Pakistan Army intensified – and, like the 1897 revolt, spread to almost all agencies of Fata – intermediary institutions including the old Maliki system became useless.

There are 42,647 Maliks in Fata. From 2006 till 2012, the Taliban systematically killed more than one thousand tribal elders while many more were forced to take refuge in big cities. Pakhtuns have traditionally had tribal chieftains, Maliks and Khans as power brokers, enforcing their will through the jirga system. It is a misconception that everyone has a say in the jirga or that the tribal society is egalitarian.

All these institutions worked according to the Pakhtunwali – an unwritten traditional code and way of life, which transformed or simply collapsed as Mullahs appeared as power brokers within society and state. Having facing challenges from the emerging professional and middle classes as well as the rural poor these power brokers could not survive without the help of the state.

A large volume of literature produced on the nature of Pakhtun society and institutions in the tribal belt is ahistorical, especially manipulated during the time of the British Raj. These practices still dominate the bureaucratic approach to the issue, and use research compiled by NGOs that have little understanding of the region.

The process of reforms was initiated in 1996 when some electoral modifications were introduced with the extension of adult franchise to Fata. This was the first great blow to the hegemonic position of the Malik as the sole power broker in the region. In fact, traditional classes had already lost their economic and social influence but there was no organised resistance to their hegemonic role before the rise of the Taliban.

The emerging nouveau riche and professional and middle classes did try to gain ground – in the guise of reformist Islamism – against the traditional classes but in vain. Instead, they paved the way for the rise of a more militant and assiduous rural poor uprising.

A report issue in 2009 by the International Crisis Group (ICG) strongly links the success of military operations against militants to the implementation of political reforms. According to the report, the Taliban had usurped the power of the dysfunctional state institutions along with the already dismantled fragile tribal structure. Although Pakistan can dislodge the militants, yet “the longer the state delays implementing political, administrative, judicial and economic reforms, the more difficult it will be to stabilise the region.”

For years, Pakistan was unable to isolate the militants from the rest of society, compelling authorities to make deals with one or the other militant group after military operations (something that was criticised by the US). This subsequently strengthened the militant position vis-a-vis the authorities and traditional elites.

Pakistan cannot manage to isolate militants from the rest of the population and so whole populations are punished. Under Operation Zarb-e-Azb, authorities were able to displace almost the entire population from Waziristan region and Khyber Agency – like the Malakand division on the eve of the Swat operation in 2009 with a displacement of 3.5million people.

The socio-economic changes and militancy contributed to the introduction of the political reforms process. Yet the government is cautious as Fata is a border area. Therefore, the report submitted by the reforms committee suggested neither full-fledged empowerment of the nouveau riche and emerging new professional and middle classes nor a full reduction of power of the traditional classes. The regime is trying to seek a balance between the warring brothers to consolidate their position – vis-a-vis the more militant rural poor.


The writer is an independent researcher. Email: [email protected]


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