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Fata revisited

The immense success of Operation Zarb-e-Azb has brought calm and tranquility not only in Fata but the entire country. Terrorist activities have reduced to a considerable extent, and their networks have been dismantled at least for the time being.

Despite these positive signs, I feel that is no room for complacency as far as the future of Fata is concerned. I would not refute the assertions that the operation in tribal areas has met the expectations of the people. I would however, suggest that we may consider the geography of the region, peculiarities of the law and order situation across the border and emerging scenario before drawing a future plan for the governance of Fata. Making sure this future plan is implemented after successful completion of the operation would be an essential prerequisite for a prosperous future of the region.

Afghanistan has been ravaged by years of warfare. Internal strife coupled with intervention from foreign powers has weakened the country, making it fertile for terrorist organisations trying to get local recruits as well as across the border. There have been reports about rise of Daesh in Afghanistan. If these reports are true, Pakistan should be genuinely concerned.

Pakistan’s worst nightmare would be Daesh gaining a foothold in adjoining areas across the border. Daesh’s influence in the Nanghar province could pervade into the Khyber and Momand agencies. Similarly, the rise of Daesh in the ‘Toba Kandao’ region of Afghanistan will raise alarms in Chitral.

The ongoing army operation has brought peace and tranquility in Fata but has also added to the vulnerabilities that inevitably arise due to such operations. First, there is a sizable population of more than two million IDPs – a staggering 400,000 families who were forced to leave the area as a result of the operation. Second, there is the destruction of the means of livelihood of the IDPs. Homes, agricultural land and crops as well as cattle have been killed during the operation. Even retailers had to flee the area, which resulted in their shops being looted by the Taliban or destroyed in the operation.

Another problem is the complete meltdown of the civil administration of the region. The civil administration does not hold any enviable performance record in Fata but with the army taking over the de-facto administration of region even the semblance of civilian presence has vaporised.

These vulnerabilities provide great opportunities to organisations like the TTP and Daesh. An unhappy, deprived, displaced and impoverished local populace, which is denied the basic amenities of life, is susceptible to diabolical indoctrination. It is, therefore, imperative that a well thought-out plan should be chalked out to resettle and rehabilitate displaced persons. Furthermore, a strategy would have to be devised to forestall any chances of resurgence of criminal and anti-state elements once the local population has settled down and the army has withdrawn.

Of foremost importance is a strategy to encourage the IDPs to return to their homes. This phase would require concomitant efforts to rebuild the homes of the IDPs and conditional payments to them for reestablishment of their businesses in exchange for their return as promised by the government. The government should make good on its promise to rebuild houses for purposes of economies of scale and for timely completion of this phase. Similarly, means of livelihood would have to be provided by the government in the form of reconstruction of markets and cash doleouts for farmers.

Along with resettlement of the IDPs, parallel efforts would have to be initiated for reconstruction of civil administration of all the agencies. The archaic and outdated office of ‘political agent’ is an aberration in these modern times and also militates against the norms of decentralisation of powers. In my previous article for these pages, I had suggested the establishment of elected Fata councils. These councils could be entrusted with the task of expenditure of development funds as well as deciding about the future of Fata and amendments in FCR. Law and order may remain with the office of the political agent.

Only when resettlement of IDPs and a systemised resurrection of civil administration begin to take shape should the process of withdrawal of armed forces be initiated. This should also be a phased withdrawal to preempt any attempt by the militants to regroup and wreak havoc on a new system. It is my conviction that this phased withdrawal would only be successful if tribals are allowed to live by their centuries-old system of ‘riwaaj’ and territorial responsibility. It is this old and tested system that has proved to be more powerful in maintaining peace in Fata than any other institutional effort in history.

At the risk of repeating myself, I must emphasise that the abrupt action of the withdrawal of armed forces without proper planning would lead to militants regrouping from across the border, and attempts by Daesh to gain influence in the agencies. Moreover, the local population would be completely disillusioned and alienated, left feeling that their sacrifice of leaving their homes and livelihood has not borne fruit.

Let me also clarify that currently I am not representing Fata in the legislature. I speak as a common man belonging to the region. I will always remain a strong proponent of the people’s will prevailing in Fata.

The writer is a former federal minister and hails from the Khyber Agency.