Pakistan’s Tribal Challenge

With a revived Taliban and Al Qaeda operating out of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the region has assumed center stage in the US-led “war on terror”. To secure these areas, Pakistan’s civilian government seeks to negotiate with tribesmen to end combat, withdraw the army and only use it as a last resort, while promoting economic development.

Yet this strategy will fail unless Pakistan fully addresses FATA’s regressive and shrinking governance system. Political and legal reforms are essential to extend the state’s writ, uphold constitutional rights and prevent increasing public support for the Taliban while securing the region in the long-term.

Located along Pakistan’s northwestern border with Afghanistan, FATA consists of seven tribal agencies and six frontier regions with more than 3 million people. Exercising limited control over this fiercely independent region, the British Empire used force and financial inducements to keep strategically important roads and passes open while neglecting the remaining areas – a status quo preserved after Pakistan’s independence.

Militancy in FATA is attributed to a host of factors including its history as a staging ground for the Soviet resistance, fallout from the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan’s manoeuvring in Afghanistan, and its sizeable impoverished and illiterate population. Yet the area’s flawed governance has also bolstered the Taliban today in three ways:

First, the full writ of the state has never extended across FATA. Inaccessible areas where the state has no presence have existed since the British era, providing a haven for criminals and militants.

Second, where a system of administration exists, the Taliban and the army are dismantling it. Since 2004, the Taliban have reportedly killed more than 300 maliks, or tribal leaders. Many maliks now turn to the Taliban, not the central government’s agents, for their marching orders. The Taliban now fills the cumulative political vacuum.

Third, where the system is intact, its key features fuel anti-state sentiment. In a 2008 British government-sponsored survey, 73 percent in the region said the state jirga, or assembly, does not provide speedy justice. Because the century-old British frontier regulations are outdated, locals justify turning to the Taliban’s religious courts for harsh yet swift justice.

Fortunately, there is widespread recognition of the need for reforms in FATA among all the major political parties as reflected in their 2008 election manifestos. Yet recognition does not necessarily translate into action.

Five factors are often cited for the failure of reform initiatives: the deteriorating security situation, bureaucratic elements with vested political and financial interests, the central government’s fear of losing control of a strategic area, broader political instability in Pakistan and the tribal people’s rejection of change and suspicion of the government.

The Cabinet Committee on Frontier Crimes Regulations Reforms is now holding consultations with its chairman, the federal law minister, promising to submit recommendations to the cabinet soon.

Key political reforms include extending the Political Parties Act to FATA to bolster moderate political forces with a related petition pending in the Supreme Court. Phasing out the maliki system, the state should establish agency councils that are more accountable and representative than the appointed councils that expired last year. A FATA-wide council should also be created with a clear mandate to provide a forum to articulate interests, debate reforms and vote on issues such as FATA’s ultimate status in the federation – something FATA’s people should decide.

On legal reforms, appellate court jurisdiction, currently barred in the region, should be extended. Reforms of the British regulations must be pursued including overhauling certain penalties, giving the parties a role in jirga selection, expediting the judicial process and accommodating requests for Islamic law-based rulings.

These are questions of domestic and international import. For FATA’s plight has exacted a tragic toll on Pakistan and elicited a stark warning from the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, that the next terrorist attack on America will likely emerge from these badlands. Part of the answer to these questions is FATA’s antiquated and ineffective governance – a glaring example of how a local ill can affect global security.

No amount of anti-terrorism operations or development aid alone can cure this ill. The onus is on Islamabad to mainstream this region in conjunction with its people. For one of the Taliban’s greatest strengths in FATA today is the government’s weakness. That is why the federal government must heed the warning of one of its own senior coalition party members, Afrasiab Khattak, from the North West Frontier Province’s ruling Awami National Party: “The question of dismantling militant sanctuaries in FATA and taking short- and long-term measures to open up the areas and integrate it with the rest of the country needs urgent attention if we are to avoid impending catastrophe.”

Ziad Haider is a MA candidate in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online. Copyright © 2006 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.