Pakistan's Lawless, Impoverished Northwest

The rugged, lawless region lying across the North Western frontier of Pakistan under the name Federally Administered Tribal Areas, universally called FATA, is known as the "hub of terrorism" in a country that itself is almost ungovernable and too often in the grip of terror.

It is perhaps Pakistan's least developed and most ignored region?hence the most troubled as well. The level of socio-political and economic development here as compared to other regions is extremely low and poverty is rampant. That is ironic because FATA is arguably considered one of the central geopolitical landscapes of Southwestern Asia linking Afghanistan, Central Asia and Eurasia. The historian Arnold Toynbee once called it the nucleus of the "region between Oxus and Jumna (that) has been the theater of decisive events in mankind's history."

The region doesn't enjoy the status of a federal union in the Pakistani federation and is the least integrated of any of the country's regions into the national polity. It is the least developed as well.

The projection of FATA in both the national and international media as the "hub of terrorists" may not be wrong or an exaggeration. However, the answer to the question?why has FATA become the haven for the terrorist networks -- can't be fully answered without taking into account the extremely low indicators of societal development, which have placed the region at the receiving end of the global 'War on Terror', making it easy prey to the terrorist networks' penetration.

It is unfortunate that even after 65 years of Pakistan's independence, this area has not become a full participant in the Pakistani governmental framework. The laws of the country don't apply to the region as they do in the rest of country, making it impossible to join the mainstream. The administrative system is different from the rest of the country and is ruled under Frontier Crimes Regulations enacted by the British colonial government in 1872, revised and amended in 1887, 1901 and now in 2011.

Political parties were banned in FATA until the Political Parties Act of 2002 was finally extended to it in August 2011. With political parties banned, it was has been difficult to have a real participatory political culture, especially when individuals can't afford to contest and win elections without the support of political parties. Even if they win, they remain insignificant in parliamentary politics in Islamabad.

Although the voters are able to elect their representatives, their political power remains dormant in the face of a federally appointed political agent, who until 2011 enjoyed absolute authority in matters of law and order, and who operates without any representative capacity. As such, the people of FATA have no say in local or national decision making. Their wishes and aspirations are not heard or effectively represented at the national level and, as such their conditions remain unchanged.

People of FATA believe this lack of participation one of the main reasons behind their socio-political backwardness. According to a survey held in 2010 by Community Appraisal and Motivation Program Pakistan, 32.8 percent the territory's people felt they should be practically involved in the development process both by the government and civil society sector, this being the only way of integrating FATA into the mainstream and ending political alienation.

This unique system of administration also creates number of other problems. In the absence of a regulatory framework, rights and duties of individuals with regard to access to basic services and resources remain undefined, creating a climate of fear and a perception of lawlessness in the minds of locals as well as outsiders. Even for local residents, such a situation leaves much to be desired.

The condition of FATA's socio-economic development is similar. According to a WHO report, nearly 50 percent of tribesmen live in abject poverty, 75 percent have no access to clean drinking water. Annual population growth rate is almost 4 percent as compared to nationally cited figures of 2 percent. The literacy rate is 17 percent as against a national average of 56 percent, while female literacy rate is less than 1 percent. FATA has a large number of small schools but very few students. Some schools accommodate as few as 65 students, most average one to three teachers.

With 7 percent of national population, FATA receives only 1 percent of the national budget. No wonder that the region had the country's highest emigration ratio even before the advent of terrorist outfits which, along with army operations, have further displaced tens of thousands of people.

The estimated unemployment rate is 60 to 80 percent, or even close to 100 percent seasonally, if remittances and migrant labor are not counted.

Similarly, one doctor is available for 7670 persons as against the national average of 1226, one hospital for every 50 square kilometers serving a large population which, in the porous border regions, also includes those who reside on the Afghan side of the Durand Line.

It is thus not entirely correct to link the phenomenon of terrorism in FATA to the global War on Terror. Rather the primary cause of terrorism and insurgency in FATA or in KPK (North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan) is adverse economic conditions which have badly affected livelihood, employment, the social sector, and infrastructure, has directly paved the way for the establishment and expansion of a 'neo-Taliban mini state' in FATA and foreign involvement as claimed on various occasions by Pakistan's ex-Interior Minister, Rehman Malik.

It is well known that internal weakness invites external aggression, covert or overt, and that the only means, other than war, to ward it off is real time societal development. What have the successive governments of Pakistan done to ameliorate these conditions and counter fast-spreading terrorism and radicalism? Although Pakistan has been facing terrorism since 2003 and 2004, no national security policy has so far been outlined to combat terrorism. As such, no practical, coordinated steps have been taken to redress the wrongs done to Pakistanis in general and FATA in particular.

Pakistan's successive governments have been following two types of policies to counter terrorism in FATA: military operations against terrorist outfits and launching development projects simultaneously including political reforms, with the former overshadowing the latter.

The reform bill signed in August 2011 by the president was meant to usher in an era of democratization, mainstreaming and de-marginalization of the tribal areas. However, the social, security and economic environment in Fata has hindered positive impacts of these reforms for at least the foreseeable future. Reforms cannot be implemented and pay dividends unless there is enough room for them, and unless there is peace.

Similarly, development cannot take place alongside military operations, which are continuing on in a number of FATA agencies, and a large part of the population of FATA is living outside hometown after being internally displaced for several reasons.

Frequent drone strikes bring to light the presence of international jihadists who have established strong pockets of influence in the region. According to locals, various militant organizations like the Tehrik-i-Taliban, Lashkar-iIslam, the Wana-based Maulvi Nazir group, the North Waziristan-based Hafiz Gul Bahadur group, the Punjabi Taliban and others have acquired territorial and ideological control over large pockets. The working of civilian state institutions in the region is mostly dependent on the support of either the militants or the military. The military has replaced the political administration and the militants have replaced the Maliks as far as the political, administrative and sociocultural control of Fata is concerned.

For example, Pakistan has stationed about 100,000 troops in the area and set up more than 900 check posts to keep an eye on trans-border movement. The moving of the army into FATA, though inevitable, left a negative impact on the system of administration in the tribal agencies because civilian administration was compromised. It now seems the real stakeholders in Fata are the military, the militants and the 'international jihadists' besides partly the political administration. How can reforms or development projects, such the ambitious Sustainable Development Plan of FATA, be implemented when there is practically no centrally organized authority and no territorial coherence as far as political administration is concerned?

The strife that keeps FATA simmering has various dimensions but its roots lie in the government's hands-off policy towards the tribal areas. Traditionally, the interest of decision makers has been limited to maintaining the status quo. Shortsighted and piecemeal development plans, benefiting select tribal elites rather than the common man, have prevented integration into the national mainstream. Decision-makers can, however, no longer afford to remain indifferent. An integrated and sustainable development strategy is badly needed to put FATA on the path to peace and prosperity along with the rest of the country.

Pakistan's government must repeal the Frontier Crimes Regulations, incorporate the region into the provincial and national justice system and replace tribal militias with the national police. Economic growth needs to be encouraged by developing infrastructure and education opportunities. The US and the international community should combine aid with dialogue on institutional reforms. They may enhance the region's development by supporting specialized economic zones that tap FATA's indigenous resources.

Finally, the military should be pressured to allow humanitarian access to the conflict zones, and to prevent the region from being used by extremist groups.

(Salman Rafi Sheikh is a researcher in the field of International Relations and Pakistan Affairs.)