The final Frontier

Political parties push for FATA reforms and KP merger

The final Frontier
On October 9 protest rallies led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Awami National Party leaders marched from Peshawar to D-Chowk in Islamabad, where political activists and tribals staged a sit-in. Their cause was to push for an implementation of FATA reforms and a merger with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which was being delayed by the government.

What was remarkable about this effort was that it was bringing together not only several political parties, that would otherwise not brook each other, but it was also backed by the heavyweight names. Political workers and leaders of the PTI, ANP, Pakistan Peoples Party, Jamaat-e-Islami were present. MNA Shahjee Gul Afridi of Khyber Agency, MNA Shahabuddin Khan from Bajaur Agency, MNA Sajid Turi of Kurram Agency, Senator Shahi Syed of Sindh, Peshawar MNA Ghulam Ahmed Bilour, Mian Iftikhar Hussain of Nowshera, ANP’s Aqil Shah and Haroon Bilour, KP Assembly Speaker Asad Qaisar (PTI), Sir-ul-Haq (JI), Senator Farhatullah Babar, Akhundzada Chattan (PPP) are just some of their names. A three-member delegation met PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi later on.

The push had begun a few days ago. On October 5, parliamentarians Shahjee Gul Afridi and Shahbuddin Khan along with tribal leaders camped out in front of parliament in Islamabad, as a protest. (Shahjee Gul Afridi is the brother of Senator Taj Muhammad Afridi, a Karachi-based business tycoon, who is the main contractor transporting NATO fuel from Karachi to bases in Afghanistan.) They were joined by the chief of the the Qaumi Watan Party MNA Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao and Senator Abdul Rehman. Protests had already taken place in Bara subdivision of Khyber Agency, Khar (Bajaur) and Ghalanai (Mohmand Agency) under the banner of the All Fata Siysaasi Ittehad.
The government has been trying to maintain some semblance of order in the region by making arrangements for emerging social forces while keeping the traditional classes in its fold to enable them to make the return of militants impossible

The confusion about FATA reforms took a turn when mangled ‘news’ circulated last week that the federal government had extended the Police Act, 1861 to FATA, a so-called hotbed of terrorism. The ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) had to clarify that this was only restricted to a very limited area in Khyber Agency. The traditional Levies force in the region was to be renamed as police and some judicial powers were to be introduced. People reacted badly as talk of reforms had been on the table since the start of the year. Indeed, from the onset, FATA reforms have been dogged by controversy.

In March, the federal government had approved recommendations of the committee set up by former PM Nawaz Sharif, before some objections were raised by the government’s allies and the armed forces. By July, news surfaced that the Establishment had been delaying the merger. However, former Safron minister Abdul Qadir Baloch had told the Senate that the military was not opposing the merger, and instead wanted to complete the rehabilitation and mainstreaming of the ‘sick man of the Pakhtun belt’ before the merger.

The government has been cautious about replacing the loathed Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) law because the region consists of seven agencies and frontier regions bordering Afghanistan which have had a history of trouble since colonial times.

The problem is that the ruling elite find themselves in a Catch-22: neither are the ruling classes confident of the outcome of the reforms nor can they ignore the need for them. After much confusion and many all-party conferences, several proposals were put forward.

The armed forces have so far conducted several operations in the region under various names and different claims since 2002. The Pakistan Army cannot, however, continue doing this indefinitely. The situation in FATA makes it imperative to reform the region as the old social order and administrative set-up is no longer capable of maintaining law and order. The old social order mainly consisted of and was dependent on the hegemony of the Maliks in tribes. However, the Taliban managed to first marginalize the tribal chieftains and Maliks and finally systematically killed them. A large number of Maliks managed to flee to the big cities to seek refuge. The army interventions since 2002 consequently sidelined the political administration and paramilitary forces. Although the Taliban are at their knees, they are fighting to make a comeback. Armed interventions were considered indispensable because the entire Maliki system and management was on the ropes. The state recognizes the weakness of the old social order and political administration.

At least part of the blame for this falls on the emergence of new social forces in the last decades on Pashtun soil. Since 1990 new social forces and stakeholders have emerged in Pashtun society thanks to large-scale migration to big cities such as Karachi and the Middle East. This has weakened the traditional classes. New stakeholders such as MNA Shahjee Gul Afridi of the powerful Al-Haj group and professional and middle class members such as Latif Afridi, a prominent lawyer, former senator Afrasiab Khattak, MNA Shahabuddin Khan, and Said Alam Mehsud of the Pakhtun Ulasi Tehreek made themselves heard on FATA reform.

It is said that there is a recognition that agreements with militants must be avoided. Pakistan has been under pressure over terrorists who are destabilizing the whole region. Therefore, the government has to find a solution that lies between its strategic interests in Afghanistan and pacifies the tribals on its side of the Durand Line.

The government has been trying to maintain some semblance of order in the region by making arrangements for emerging social forces while keeping the traditional classes in its fold to enable them to make the return of militants impossible. Therefore the aim of the reforms must be seen as a counterinsurgency measure and a compromise between the traditional and emerging social classes.

It seems that after much soul-searching, this has been recognized in the Rewaj Act, which was introduced as part of Fata reforms and seeks to replace the FCR with a judicial system called the Tribal Areas Rewaj Act 2017. This is a mixture of traditional jirga and contemporary judicial systems. The Rewaj Act, has, however, been severely criticised and by September there was talk of withdrawing it.

Policy-makers are nevertheless hopeful that their new strategies will not only empower the new middle classes but will also support new sources of hope for the traditional elite, who have been, by some accounts, hibernating. Therefore, the present reforms in FATA must be seen as an attempt to re-establish a new social order with a combination of new emerging social forces and old traditional classes as well as the restoration of the writ of the state at the hands of the civil administration. In light of the reform agenda, the military will be maintaining its nominal or minimal presence and be restricted to the cantonments as it is with the rest of the country and hand over the security of the region to the paramilitary forces and police. The military has been busy with development work such as constructing dams, roads, educational institutions and promoting the business classes.

But none of this can bear fruit unless a new social contract is drawn up and the rural poor are not suppressed. It is unavoidable that in the present situation, the interests of traditional and new social forces on one hand and the civil and military on the other hand will not collide as we see a gulf between the civilian and military just as deep, enduring, and far-reaching on every issue including internal security and foreign affairs, especially with neighboring countries, including Afghanistan. By far, the most pressing challenge is the withdrawal of the armed forces from the realm of affairs of the region. A far more cautious approach to militancy, one thoroughly grounded in history and practice may be helpful because an approach from an imperialist point of view is dangerous as history has proven.

The colonial bureaucracy of the region was skeptical about the Pashtun and considered that political reforms introduced in the rest of India could not be extended to the region from 1908 to until 1933. Inter alia, the Pakistani authorities inherited this legacy from the British. However, the British, time and again, had to make drastic changes and introduce administrative reforms in FATA. Responding to an uprising from Malakand to Waziristan in 1897, the British, under Viceroy Lord Curzon in 1901 separated some parts of Punjab and renamed it the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Before this, an uprising in Waziristan (1880s) compelled the British to divide the region into two separate administrative zones: North and South Waziristan. Despite all their efforts, the British were unable to suppress the tribals and gain a full control of the region. Similarly, Pakistan has tried to keep intact the administrative structure but deprived the Malik as the only stakeholder in the region by extending adult franchise to the region in mid-1990. The Political Parties Act was only extended in 2011. However, both measures proved to be insufficient to meet the needs of the rural poor or satisfy the upwardly mobile social parts of society.

The rural poor have been marginalized by the state en masse. This has been the outcome of interventions in neighbouring Afghanistan, the rise of the Taliban and economic and social changes. Reforms and one would hope transformations cannot be fully reflective of the social complexities of the region unless this is factored in. And thus, so far the process of bringing about reforms to this part of Pakistan has been fitful and sporadic.

The writer is an independent researcher and can be reached at