FATA reforms have been a success story for human development
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FATA reforms have been a success story for human development

Wednesday, 13 January 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Gomal Zam Dam Irrigation project will command an area of 191,000 acres. Credit: APP

FATA is an acronym for ex-Federally Administered Tribal Areas in the north-west of Pakistan that have now been merged into Khyber Pakhtunwa province.

These tribal areas straddled Pak-Afghan border pre-dating Pakistan along a border delineated as a consequence of an agreement between the British Indian Empire and the Afghan ruler Amir Abdur Rehman Khan in 1893.

During the British colonial days, these tribal areas were administered through special laws like the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) that vested the administrative powers with the British administrative representatives called Political Agents. The British-led local militia Frontier Corps manned the border, while the British Indian Army stayed in the cantonments to provide stability.

Since the tribal areas served as a buffer zone between the British Indian Empire and the Afghan forays, they were hardly developed. The ancient culture and atavistic tribal nihilistic social mores were deliberately allowed to flourish as long as the British retained a tenuous hold over the area to keep the Tzarist Russia’s expansionism in check.

Resultantly, the area remained under-developed and its people lived by a code among the feral tribes called Pakhtunwali, featuring courage, hospitality, generosity and revenge. Even after the British departure in 1947, FATA continued to be governed indirectly. After a long process of political accommodation, FATA was merged and mainstreamed with the KP Province.

The area, however, has an interesting history. It was the staging post and base of resistance against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1988. Subsequently, when the US invaded Afghanistan post-9/11, the area again became a habitat of renegade fighters and militants due to its rugged terrain.

The US involvement in Afghanistan and the rout of Taliban ushered in a new dynamic wherein the latter forged a linkage with the local tribes with ethnic affiliations for seeking refuge. Pakistan, burdened with its own share of fighting militancy, tried its best to control the situation under the most trying environment.

To compound the situation, an active insurgency-like situation was imposed on Pakistan in 2003 by a collusion of hostile intelligence agencies – RAW and NDS. Pakistan, despite its alliance with the USA and provision of invaluable logistical support to the US counter insurgency effort in Afghanistan, suffered immensely, with 83,000 terrorism related deaths and an economic loss of US$ 128 billion. All this happened due to the depredations of a war imposed on Afghanistan and the failure of the Afghan government to stabilize the situation within the country.

The international community did its best to counter insurgency in Afghanistan and build a new nation; both undertakings remained unsuccessful. In Afghanistan, the government had a tenuous hold over power and the Taliban fighters on ground made gains with their fighting prowess. The US-Taliban deal of February 2020 calls for exit of all US forces from Afghanistan by spring 2021.

The Trump administration is keen to effect a rapid withdrawal of all US forces with only 2500 troops left behind. There are misgivings in all quarters about the precipitate US withdrawal and the possibility of Afghanistan lapsing into an all too familiar internecine warfare. There are also several peace spoilers like ISIS (Afghan Daesh) and RAW, who do not want Afghanistan to stabilize and would keep the pot boiling.

This brings Pakistan’s ex-FATA region into focus as a success story. The US Army and NATO had resorted to counter insurgency approach along with civilian rehabilitation and infrastructure restoration as integral parts of counterinsurgency campaigns.

Michael McNerney writes in his article “Stabilization and Reconstruction in Afghanistan: Are PRTs a Model or a Muddle?” that US hold-and-build strategy in Afghanistan was predicated on capacity building of the insurgency ravaged communities through Provincial Reconstruction Teams, a concept borrowed from the failed US experience in Vietnam. All this petered away at the altar of unrealistic assessment and Afghanistan remained a fractured entity at the mercy of war lords and Taliban commanders controlling their respective swathes of territory.

Across the Pak-Afghan border, a new corner was turned after the FATA merger. It was a metamorphic change that defied centuries old traditions and ossified governance mode. The law of the land was extended to these hitherto lawless frontiers and the country’s legal and administrative apparatus was introduced in the tribal areas. The traditional Rewaj or local customs were given due weightage with the power of legal adjudication of criminal and civil law was vested in the courts established across erstwhile FATA. The concept of tribal levies was done away with and replaced by regular police. The capacity building of police is being improved through training, while Frontier Corps relieves the army from its border deployment.

Substantial development work has been done, including construction of Gomal Dam and Dhanna irrigation system, development of central trade corridor and over 700 kilometers road network has significantly improved communications and connectivity. This infrastructure development has enabled the local agrarian economy to connect with the rest of the country and much improved livelihoods. On the rehabilitation front, great strides have been made. Over 40,000 families had moved out of North Waziristan before commencement of anti-terrorist military Operation Zar- e-Azab.

After the return of normalcy, most of these families returned with government’s generous compensation package for the internally dislocated persons. Mud houses were replaced with proper houses and properties belonging to the militants and their affiliates were handed over to the population. The area has been sanitized of terrorists and miscreants. Over 200 hard core militants, who surrendered and availed the amnesty offer, were sent to deradicalization and rehabilitation centers.

Pakistan’s ex-FATA region is now peaceful. Barring isolated forays across the Pak-Afghan frontier that has now been mostly fenced, the situation is normal. 800 miles of Pak-Afghan border has been fenced with 1000 manned forts and posts to ensure security. This has been made possible due to political reforms to incorporate FATA into the national mainstream and an unrelenting counter terrorism campaign. The economic and infrastructure development, along with extension of legal and political authority, has made mainstreaming of FATA an interesting case study of successful human development and security strategy.