Now is the time to absorb Fata into Pakistan

Published October 29, 2014
This picture shows a Pakistani soldier holding a rocket launcher while securing a road in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). — File photo/Reuters
This picture shows a Pakistani soldier holding a rocket launcher while securing a road in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). — File photo/Reuters

A Punjabi joke from the '90s captures Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s predicament today quite well:

Nawaz goes up to his father for a talk:

Nawaz: "Abba jee, if things go bad, what do we do?"

Abba jee: "Attack America!"

Nawaz: "(perplexed) But why?"

Abba jee: "They will beat you up at first, but then, like with Japan and Germany, they will rebuild you into a global power."

Nawaz ponders for a while and then responds: "But Abba jee, what if we win?"

The current situation in the tribal areas of Pakistan is exactly that – the prime minister’s worst nightmare has come true.

His generals in the tribal areas have effectively dismantled the Taliban’s infrastructure and are now asking the PM to do his job and legislate. Without the civilian government introducing new laws for residents of the tribal area and facilitating the army’s withdrawal and handover of the area to locals, the entire civil-military balance in the country may be in jeopardy.

In his press conference today (October 29), DG ISPR Asim Bajwa said "the local tribal people are also sick and tired of the militants."

Tragedy awaits the poor tribal residents, and this time, inertia may result in the creation of entities much more sinister than the Taliban.

See: Pakistan's 'song of llions'

The tribal areas, comprising of seven agencies and nine frontier regions, with the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) governing them, came into existence through an act in 1901 by the then Governor-General of India, Lord Curzon. Ranjit Singh’s Punjab was partitioned and the North West Frontier Province created, with the river Indus as the boundary.

This was a result of 10 years of planning that started in 1891, after a review of the causes of failure of the second Afghan campaign in 1878. Curzon – undersecretary of state for India in Salisbury’s cabinet – had also advised against any further intervention in Afghanistan and repeated the saying:

“[In Afghanistan] a small army would be annihilated while a large army would simply starve”.

Earlier in 1893, the Secretary of State for India appointed Sir Mortimer Durand to demarcate the international border/great game buffer between India and Afghanistan, known as the Durand line; his remit was to ensure a secure and defensible western border wherever possible.

Accordingly, Durand, ensured that the high-watershed ridge lines were included and that the passes could be defended; resulting in a jagged 1600-mile long border. The single-page treaty was signed in Kabul by Durand and the Afghan Amir, Abdur Rahman Khan.

So the tribal agencies became part of Pakistan subsequent to the partition of India in 1947, more by an accident of geography than any territorial conquest. However, it is this very topography that makes these territories virtually impregnable and extremely vital to control for the security of our western border.

Know more: Black law of FCR continues to evade legislators’ attention

The FCR are laws that essentially allowed the tribes to run their agencies by their own jirga rules with an appointed Political Agent (along with Assistant Political Agents) acting as the Government’s representatives in the area. Notwithstanding certain amendments –the latest in 2011 – the laws of the State of Pakistan or its court judgments do not apply here.

Tribal disputes used to be settled by the jirga, and in case of a crime against the State where criminals were not handed over to the federal government by the Maliks (tribal chiefs who received a stipend), a collective punishment including fines and confiscation of property rights could be handed out to the entire tribe; residents could be arrested without the crime being specified, with limited recourse.

The Frontier Constabulary (FC) was a border protection force between the tribal and settled areas, as well as a line of defense against tribal and criminal incursions. Additionally, the Frontier Corps is used for border patrol and to help local law and order enforcement. The system allows the tribes to pretty much govern themselves, but relies on incentives, the loyalty of the Maliks and intelligence gathered through informers.

I had a personal experience with the FCR in January of 1990. I was kidnapped from Charsaddah and kept hostage for over 10 days in Mohmand and Bajaur agencies.

Unlike many others since then, including Shahbaz Taseer and Ali Haider Gillani, I was extremely fortunate that my early release was facilitated through the application of FCR by the police and Political Agents (PAs) of Bajaur and Mohmand.

Take a look: Talks with the Taliban

There may be a hundred things wrong with the FCR laws, but I am living proof that in the 90s, they did function and that the government had effective control over the various agencies. However, after 9/11, with the advent of well-armed Taliban, almost 400 Maliks were killed and the rest forced to flee, leaving the entire tribal area at the Taliban’s mercy. Capture the head, capture the land is what the Taliban went on to accomplish.

The Taliban anarchy may have been reversed now with Zarb-i-Azb and other army operations. But after the elimination of the Maliks and the collapse of the entire tribal order, there is a huge vacuum in the area. Whatever chiefs and militias remain are too weak to withstand a Taliban intrusion, and the archaic FCR laws have been rendered void.

This is a golden opportunity to do away completely with the old order and initiate new laws to finally integrate the millions of tribal residents into the motherland.

If this assimilation does not happen, all the gains from the ongoing military operation and the lives lost will fade into dust, and a worst nightmare might emerge on our western borders.

General Raheel Sharif’s recent statement at the military academy is instructive. He said the army has almost completed its task and wishes to engage with all stakeholders, almost advising the government to take up its legislative work more seriously.

Read on: The army’s view

The government must replace FCR with an enabling legal framework for credible governance in the tribal area to facilitate the transfer of power to civilian rule, and integrate these areas into mainstream Pakistan – or as my site foreman used to so succinctly tell his less productive workers, “piss or get off the pot”.

Failure to do that may well lead to an insidious distrust between the military chiefs and the civilian leadership, something that the country can ill afford at this juncture.

Also see: Resolution passed to extend superior courts' jurisdiction to Fata

The destruction caused by war is a great leveller of the field, but more importantly, it presents a unique opportunity for reform.

If we seize this opportunity for reform now, and assimilate the tribal areas into Pakistan, this troubled part of Pakistan may well be transformed forever. Traumatic experiences like those meted out to your author and others may become part of history.

But with Nihari gravy trains, ghosts and container DJs prevailing over common sense, this may yet remain a dream.

If only wishes were horses.

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