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May 23, 2017

Botching Fata reforms


May 23, 2017

For republican purists – those of us that believe in a coherent state guided by a consistent rule of law – reforms in Fata are long overdue because the special status of Fata sticks out like a sore thumb.

It is undemocratic that Pakistani citizens are treated so vastly differently, as a matter of rule. This is solid enough motivation to want to address the normative imbalance that Fata represents within the Pakistani republic, but it doesn’t answer the question about timing, urgency or salience. If we’ve waited 70 years, why shouldn’t we wait another few?

Almost every serious question about the quality and texture of our republic can be viewed through a national security lens. Fata has been elemental to our long-term strategic calculus, offering a mystifying legal set of constructs, a captive audience in terms of a populace, and an elite that had an unmatched stranglehold over economic and political opportunity. For decades, the covert services of our security forces have worked under the cover of the mystical and clouded status of Fata. But since 2001, those same advantages have become disadvantages as competing external forces have co-opted vulnerable internal ones to produce a sustained campaign of violence and terror that has redefined our statehood.

Whilst Fata was neither the cause, nor the sole driver of terror, it came to represent the principal arena of terrorists, with one Pakistani spymaster once referring to one of the Fata agencies as the “United Nations of international terrorism”. One reason to address the Fata anomaly would be to affect the quality of national security – especially given the massive scale of operations and the deep sacrifices made by the people of Fata, and members of the armed forces in recent years. Indeed, consolidating territorial and tactical gains against terrorist groups in Fata would seem to be a great starting point for a Fata reforms conversation. But we also know that decisions driven solely by national security concerns have rarely turned out well for Pakistan. To assess the Fata question dispassionately, it may be useful then to take a broad view of the importance of change now, and what it represents.

There are five key dimensions to the Fata conversation that should inform the future outcomes for that region. The first is the broad expanse of rights, dignity and wellbeing of the people of these tribal areas. Women, children, young people and all others from Fata deserve the same opportunity to dream and pursue dreams as people anywhere else. Reform should empower and enable the people of Fata to dream in 4K and to pursue those dreams in any and all parts of Pakistan, if not the world.

The second dimension is the existing structures and incentives that shape the local economies of the tribal areas. Fata represents an arena for international trade in which formal reporting is nearly non-existent. This has created an economic black hole in which smuggling is a significant economic activity, both of goods that are perfectly legitimate and goods and services that are not. The illicit narcotics trade, and the manufacturing and sales of weapons are entrenched aspects of the economy of the tribal areas. Reforms should examine the extent to which illicit economic activity will be disrupted, how local livelihoods will be impacted and what broader economic impact change will have on the people of both the tribal areas and settled parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The third key dimension is the ongoing complexity and drama that defines Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan. After the Chaman border incident, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s return to Kabul and just last week General Dostum’s escape to Turkey, Afghanistan is clearly going to continue to be a politically unstable country with an elite whose incentives are to ramp up conflict with Pakistan as a means of political distraction. The clumsy and unhelpful attitude of strategic decision-makers in Pakistan towards Afghanistan makes all this worse. A reform of the Fata region must carefully examine the vulnerability of the reforms to malign actions from across the border, as well as the local impact of clumsy decisions (such as sudden border closures, and urgent refugee repatriation programmes) on the people of Fata.

Closely linked to the question of Afghanistan is the broader conversation about Pakhtun identity that is ensconced within the Fata conversation. Pakhtuns are possibly the most diversely distributed ethnic group in the country, with substantial concentrations in each province and a significant presence within the bureaucratic, military and political elite of the country. The existential fear of sub-national identities that some elements of state and civil society have harboured over decades does not fit with the economic, cultural and social realities of Pakhtuns today. Questions about Fata reform, therefore, must not be approached from a lens of ethnic anxiety or trepidation, but from an angle of an opportunity for closing the small remaining gap between Pakhtuns and the rest of the country even more. Pakhtuns in Fata, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan all have legitimate grievances about the violence they have endured for three decades. A reform conversation that does not address these widely shared grievances will represent an opportunity lost.

The final dimension is the impact of Fata on electoral politics, and the various postures and positions that will shape and inform reform. Assumptions about the so-called backwardness of Fata must be measured against the narrative of elected representatives of Fata. Retired bureaucrats that are forever citing their service as political agents or services rendered at the Fata Secretariat represent important voices – but they need to be contextualised. Like the rest of the country, Fata is demographically skewed towards young people and reform must consider the appetite of young Pakistanis from the tribal areas – not be forever arrested by the views of the superannuated.

These five dimensions cannot be adequately lent to an analysis because there is a scattered and disjointed understanding of how the conversation has landed at the proposed Rewaj Act. While far from perfect, the current proposal addresses individual rights and establishes the jurisdiction of the judiciary in an unprecedented way. It also dilutes the adjudicatory powers of the office of the Political Agent, limiting its coercive rent-seeking capacity. There are serious questions about the process for these reforms however. They begin with the continued dependence on the Safron ministry, and the Fata Secretariat. The long-term vision of a normalised and integrated Fata would necessitate the termination of these kinds of organisations. These skewed incentives plague reform at every level in the country, and yet political leaders and top bureaucrats continue to shoot themselves in the foot.

Critics will legitimately ask what quantum of political, administrative and fiscal changes have been made to Fata, and the answers the government can provide today will leave us all deeply unsatisfied. At best, the current package offers some political reforms, but very little by way of robust administrative or fiscal changes. Even then, this may have been good enough for now.

Yet here we are, seemingly at a standstill. The fact that the government now straddles between the JUI-F and PkMAP on one side, the PTI, PPP, and ANP on another side, and the military largely distant from the overall conversation is a great barometer of the failure of leadership on the part of the prime minister on the Fata question. A generational opportunity to make transformative changes to a question that has long awaited some answers may slip away, largely because PM Sharif has a management style in which meaningful attention is only paid to dumpster truck fires.

The PTI government in Peshawar, Pakhtun nationalists at the ANP, the PPP’s senior leaders and a generation of young men and women from Fata are all rightly complaining about how the Fata reforms are being handled. It may be true that the current package is the best that Pakistan can do for now, but that case has not been adequately sold to either the government’s partners a la Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Mehmood Khan Achakzai, nor to salient stakeholders like the PTI, ANP and PPP.

We may be at the cusp of seeing yet another demonstration of the PML-N’s expertise in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The losers will be the people of Fata – a story oft-repeated now for 70 years.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.



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