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January 9, 2016
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The Fata conundrum

Opinion

January 9, 2016

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Pakistan’s tribal areas have been crying out for attention since Independence. Sir Olaf Caroe’s limpid prose describes Fata as “a prickly and untrimmed hedge between Rawalpindi and Kabul”. His typically British understatement does not however mask the reality of the Durand Line that continues to act as a ‘sanctified hedge’ that is incapable of stemming the flow of human traffic under the rubric of the easement rights granted to tribes living on both sides of the frontier.

The tribesmen inhabiting Fata have resisted external encroachment upon their freedoms since antiquity. During the Mughal times too, when the boundaries of the empire stretched till Kabul, Fata was treated as terra incognita. To create a buffer between the Tsarist-threatened Afghanistan and British India, a tribal area pacification and control regime was introduced by the British by keeping troops in the garrisons and the local militia (Levies) in the posts on the frontier. After endless campaigning against the tribes, the British instituted a system of control and governance based on local customs and a legal code called the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR).

The above system relied on a fine balance between tribal customs, the FCR, and the mediatory role of the locally influential intermediaries called Maliks. In 1901 the FCR was further strengthened by enhancing the judicial authority of administrative officers. The same system with some cosmetic changes was continued by the government of Pakistan after Independence by entering into a treaty with around 30 tribes in the area. The sedulously nurtured socio-political fabric of the area however was damaged beyond repair in the early 1980s when Fata was used as a base to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. The use of religion as an ideological prop to recruit the locals in the war endeavours disrupted the local structures of governance and power relations replacing the old power elite – the Maliks – with religiously motivated power oligarchy in the shape of the mujahedeen leaders.

Little thought was given then to the sociological impact of these changes. The war economy and governance vacuum, having altered the delicately nurtured power balance of traditional power relations, gave rise to a new power elite comprising warlords and itinerant holy warriors, who after the Soviet withdrawal were in search of a cause. The new cause was furnished by Pakistan’s establishment through its elusive quest for strategic depth on the western front and attainment of strategic objectives in Kashmir. A culture of militancy was thus subliminally spawned.

9/11 was a watershed event that exacted a volte face on the part of the Pakistani leadership that had already begun to realise the insidious nature of home-grown militancy. The change of policy was anything but sudden. The policy ambivalence and the hedging of risk kept the state response incapacitated vis-a-vis the militants occupying Fata as the new power brokers. The desultorily conducted half-hearted military operations were punctuated with uneasy truces with the militants conferring further clout on them. That was the time the state had woken up to the menace of an administrative vacuum in tribal areas and therefore planned some political, legal, and administrative reforms which however were put on hold due to the US war on Afghanistan in 2001.

The Political Parties Order 2002, the Local Government Regulation 2002, and the National Registration Act were some of the laws extended to Fata in 2012 but by then it was too late. The paradigm shift in our Fata security policy came about with the departure of General Kayani when the new army chief decided to do away with the ambivalence and equivocation to root out militancy. Operation Zarb-e-Azb has cleaned up most of Fata from militants’ presence at a heavy cost of 488 precious army lives while accounting for 3,400 terrorists.

In spite of the above gains, the battle won so far has been for negative peace – that is, absence of violence. The battle for positive peace – absence of structural inequities – is yet to begin. What hinders the quest for positive peace? That would be the challenge of a wicked problem that Fata has become. According to Rittel and Webber who coined this term, ‘a wicked problem’ presents an insuperable challenge of competing perspectives and contending viewpoint of various stakeholders.

Is the Rubik puzzle of Fata’s wicked problem amenable to a solution? For an answer one needs to understand the contending perspectives of different stakeholders. The federal government’s ability to reform is hamstrung because of the vested interests of the bureaucratic lobby and their political patrons. The informal economy and the money trail due to illicit activity have engendered a political economy of war in Fata where rent extraction by the bureaucratic and political elite has become institutionalised. The amount of lucre involved is astounding and a small portion out of that illegal commerce has also been institutionalised for fund generation. The clout and the pecuniary incentives compel the bureaucracy and political elite to viscerally oppose any meaningful Fata reforms that truly empower the people of Fata.

Any cursory look at Fata would show that the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the provincial Fata Secretariat always oppose political and economic reforms on the specious arguments of people’s fidelity to Fata traditions. They propose gradualism as a political reforms strategy but never spell out the timeframe of that gradualism; a clever stratagem to hold on to their powers and privileges at the cost of Fata denizens.

Some elements of the provincial paramilitary forces have also developed a stake in the spoils of Fata in cahoots with the politicians that inhibit their support for reforms. As a bequest of the British Indian Army, a security centred paradigm crowds out alternate policy prescriptions wherein Fata is treated as a security buffer that needs to be governed through strict laws. From one angle that perspective is correct too, and that is the loose writ of a soft state that cannot enforce its writ even in settled areas. Though the army is correctly apprehensive of the government’s ability to govern the tribesmen without the effective tool of the FCR the time has come to replace that security lens with a human-centric approach, reposing trust in the patriotism and sincerity of the people of Fata.

It is, therefore, evident that the Fata conundrum will not be resolved without reconciling the contending positions of above stakeholders. We need to rein in bureaucratic avarice and political covetousness to give the people of Fata what they actually want. One win-win solution is to hold a referendum to ascertain whether the people of Fata want gradual reforms, a merger with KP or a separate province. Any further procrastination would alienate the people from the federation – and stoke the fires of separatism.

The writer is a retired brigadier, and a PhD scholar in Peace and Conflict
Studies at the National University of Science and Technology, Islamabad.

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