Alien territory

We must reintegrate our ungoverned tribal areas

Alien territory

My name is George Nathaniel Curzon.
I am a most superior person.
My cheeks are pink; my hair is sleek.
I dine at Blenheim twice a week.
(Satirical poem composed at Balliol College, Oxford)

In 1901, Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, in furtherance of a policy designed by himself earlier as Secretary of State for India, created certain agencies along the east and south of the Line drawn by Sir Mortimer Durand. Thus were born the Tribal areas.

Some among my readers may remember driving through the Khyber Pass in the days before the world had heard of the likes of Mangal Bagh and when the term ‘Taliban’ simply meant ‘students’. They will recall the thrill that coursed through the traveller as he motored along the steep, winding road between Jamrud to Landi Kotal and on to Torkham. As the road climbed through some of the most dramatically barren mountain landscape anywhere, you passed the sites of historic battles at Ali Masjid, Hindu Bagh (renamed Muslim Bagh), and other places.

What you were always conscious of was the idea that while the road was under the protection of the Pakistan government, the rest of this mountain wilderness was Illaqa Ghair – Alien Territory – where the writ of the untamed Afridi and Shinwari tribesmen held sway. The thought that only this narrow, asphalt strip was secure kept your heart in your mouth all the way, and intensified the electric tension of the journey through the Pass. And this tension was part of the magnetic tourist attraction of this Pass of History. It is this Illaqa Ghair, this alien territory, I wish to write about.

The tribal areas, consisting of seven agencies and nine frontier regions, came into existence through Curzon’s Act of 1901. The penal code installed here was that of the completely unjust Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). Appointed Political Agents ran things here. Local disputes were settled by tribal juries (jirgas) but, in case of a crime against the state, a collective punishment including fines and confiscation of property rights was handed out to the entire tribe. People could be arrested without the crime being specified.

As I suggested in an earlier piece, these areas were not “ungoverned spaces”, but regions meant to be used for specific imperial strategies. As successor to the Raj, the early Pakistani leadership believed that the tribes should not be dragged unprepared into the modern nation-state and sought a path of gradualism. Agreements with the tribes were signed piecemeal by the political secretary Colonel ASB Shah on behalf of the Quaid-e-Azam. These agreements were never intended to be permanent, or perhaps even long term, but would and should have evolved towards more normal governmental structures. However, out of sheer bureaucratic laxness, this did not happen, and the existence of these odd administrative entities continued. Their initial claim to fame in the eyes of most Pakistanis was as conduits for petty smuggling and car theft.
Lord Curzon remains triumphant

Over the years, Political Agents and other bureaucrats appointed by our governments remained too busy jockeying for postings and transfers to bother about administration or development. Thus, nothing was done to integrate FATA/ PATA with the rest of the country. These remained ungoverned spaces, alien territories, and evolved into a thieves’ paradise — an extended band of lawlessness along our northwest that offered a staging ground for every kind of crime.

In course of time, this ungoverned alien territory became something far more deadly. Under Generals Zia and Aslam Beg, and with the massive involvement of the US and Saudi Arabia, the tribal regions were used as staging grounds for intervention in Afghanistan as per the bizarre Strategic Depth doctrine. As a result, whatever nominal authority Pakistan may have possessed here was eliminated and de facto leadership within the tribes passed from the Maliks to the Mullahs who had been armed for this Afghan adventure. As a completely predictable development, our former Illaqa Ghair evolved into a centre for world terrorism, with violent tentacles reaching across the globe, but of special malignancy in Afghanistan and in Pakistan itself.

Pakistan’s political leadership continued to prevaricate and waffle, referring to the mass-murdering terrorist bands as “misguided”, as “stakeholders”, and even as “our brothers”. Eventually, the army did finally go into firm and committed action against this deadly insurgency... even as the electronic media crudely distracted public attention towards a prolonged series of publicity-seeking dharnas, rallies, and shut-down strikes.

Despite the military’s clear resolve, the political government remains weak-kneed. One sees no sign of any kind of Master Plan for integrating and rehabilitating the tribal areas. Gen Sharif is leading a military campaign to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure in FATA and PATA, but Prime Minister Sharif is doing nothing to ensure these areas do not lapse into their old anarchy when the army moves on or withdraws. There is no public debate on this issue, nor can one recall either Nawaz, or Zardari, or Imran making any definitive pronouncement on the steps that need to be taken.

The first of those measures are political and constitutional. There are three alternative frameworks. One is to merge the tribal areas into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The second option is for these regions to become a separate province of their own. The third option would be to create a FATA Council, possibly as a transitional step towards either of the first two options. The point is not as to which is best; the point is that these are issues that need a clear vision and open discussion. Each of these steps may require a constitutional amendment. Such amendments are of greater importance and urgency than our leaders’ present obsession with the proposed 22nd Amendment.

Then come the administrative and juridical measures. The Political Agent system and the FCR survive only on paper, having already been effectively replaced, first, by the Taliban’s frighteningly effective administrative and judicial setups, and more recently by ad hoc military administrations. The failed colonial era setup can be consigned to a much deserved oblivion. An enabling legal framework for credible governance in the tribal areas is immediately necessary. Without the state introducing new laws for these areas and facilitating the army’s withdrawal and handover of the area to the local people, the whole process could backfire.

Finally, there are economic issues. The destruction caused by war, regrettable as it may be, needs reconstruction that can become an opportunity for economic integration and reinvigoration. But, before we can contemplate the building of roads, bridges, factories, and, of course, homes, schools, and hospitals, the much needed constitutional and political framework needs to be put in place. Not only is there no sign of this process commencing, but one has not seen either the Prime Minister or any other mainstream party leader even visiting these areas to talk to the citizens and ascertain their views.

Sadly, it seems that even now our leaders continue to regard these war-ravaged territories as Illaqa Ghair. Lord Curzon remains triumphant.