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Fata’s merger

March 04, 2017

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IT has been the longest of roads, spanning centuries and traversing war, insurrection and an irrepressible quest for peace. With its endorsement of historic reforms for Fata, the federal cabinet has entered the pantheon of historic change-makers in this country. Fata, a territory maintained as an anachronism and denied the rights and recognition of the provinces of Pakistan, is to finally enter the political mainstream of the country. This is a moment of celebration — crucial as the implementation phase may be, an undeniable success has now been achieved. The people of Fata, the very territory of Fata, will henceforth be regarded as an integral part of Pakistan. If carried to completion, the Fata reforms will represent the very liberation of the people of the region. No more second-class or virtually unrecognised citizens of this country — it is a moment of celebration when political and legal rights are extended to a populace long regarded as little more than a buffer against external aggression.

Sensible as the five-year plan for integration with KP may be, the challenges should not be underestimated. Three immediate challenges can be identified. First, Fata is set to become the frontier of the Pakistani state — no more buffer regions or zones of strategic depth can be contemplated. The eventual extension of the provincial boundaries to the border with Afghanistan means a fundamental reimagining of strategic choices by the state will become necessary. Better to make them sooner than later. Second, the implementation of the reforms will be critical. Be it the absorption of parts of Balochistan decades ago or the reforms in Swat, the formal merger into Pakistan of territories has had an uneven record. Fata will be a challenge like no other — a region that has been ravaged by war and abuts Afghanistan where there is continuing conflict. Constitutional, legal and administrative reforms will only succeed in an environment of relative security stability. Third, the success of Fata reforms will depend on the willingness by the other federating units and the centre to make difficult choices. The 3pc share of the National Finance Commission award to Fata will be critical to the rehabilitation and transition programme in the region, but it will require compromise by other provinces and the centre. Fundamental change will not come easily to the country.

Finally, there is the issue of expectations — and effort. The endorsement of the package of reforms by the federal cabinet is a starting point, but it has only come after a long effort. From foreign adviser Sartaj Aziz to Safron secretary Arbab Shehzab, from prominent politicians to unsung bureaucrats, there has been a significant investment of time and expertise and the belief that the constitutional structure of the state will expand to provide greater rights to all citizens of the country. Fata will only be mainstreamed if the rest of Pakistan wants it to be.

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2017