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Asia

Pakistan struggles to bring tribal areas into mainstream

The Pakistani government has proposed a merger between the lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in an attempt to rein in insurgency. But can the move be implemented?

Pakistan's Pashtun-majority tribal areas, located along its border with Afghanistan, have long been associated with Islamist insurgency. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), as they are called, enjoy a semi-autonomous status and are partly controlled by Islamabad. They are bordered by Afghanistan to the north and west, Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to the east, and Baluchistan to the south.

Pakistan governs the FATA region through the 1901 British regulations. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has no power in FATA and the Pakistani Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over the tribal region. The areas have a completely different political and electoral set up than that of the rest of Pakistan.

Until the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, FATA had cordial ties with Islamabad, but since 2001 a deep mistrust between Pakistan's federal government and the region has plagued the relations.

The US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 forced al Qaeda and Taliban militants to flee to FATA where they have held sanctuaries since then. Since the Pakistani government doesn't have a direct and total control over these areas, it is difficult for Islamabad to act against the insurgents there. Also, many analysts claim that Islamabad allows the militants to launch terror attacks on Afghan soil. But more importantly, and most experts agree on this, that Pakistan has a delicate relationship with FATA. In order to exercise its limited influence on the area and its people, Islamabad has to bargain with FATA's "political agents." Even the British, during their colonial rule, had a difficult time governing these tribal areas.

Earlier this month, Pakistan's federal cabinet approved recommendations for FATA reforms, which include the merger of the lawless region with the country's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and repeal of the British era's Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR).

Those who favor the reforms argue that the special status for the areas is the reason behind its backwardness and has so far blocked development projects, thus paving the way for extremist groups to increase their influence. But many FATA locals say that Islamabad has deliberately kept the British system in place so that it could use the areas as a buffer region against Afghanistan. Some experts even say that the merger plan is a new way to control the area in an ever-changing geopolitical situation.

Pakistan Afghanistan Grenze Torkhum Peshawar (DW/D.Baber)

The Pashtuns can easily travel back and forth across the border

Reforms and insurgency

The FATA reforms are yet to be approved by Pakistan's parliament. Pakistani political parties have different positions on the plan, while many experts say that changing the status of FATA and bringing it to Pakistan's mainstream political and legal system won't be effective in tackling the insurgency issue. Then there are Pashtun nationalist parties that oppose the move on the premise that the FATA people have the right to remain independent from Pakistan.

"FATA is not the only place where terrorists have their safe havens. The new measures are just an excuse for Islamabad to undermine the independence of FATA's people," Usman Kakar, a Pakistani senator belonging to the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, told DW, adding that the reforms initiative would likely backfire.

The Afghan government shares this view, as it believes that Afghanistan has a bigger claim on FATA than Pakistan due to its historical ties with the region. Kabul does not recognize the Durand Line as the official border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, nor do many ethnic Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border and share historical, cultural and family ties. The Pashtuns can easily travel back and forth across the border, but the deteriorating political ties between the two countries are now causing them problems. Afghan officials also do not recognize FATA as part of Pakistan.

Ghafoor Liwal, Afghanistan's deputy minister for borders and tribal affairs, told DW that the Afghan government was not consulted by Islamabad on the issue of FATA merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Afghanistan Grenzpolizei Grenze zu Pakistan (picture-alliance/dpa/G. Habibi)

Afghan officials do not recognize FATA as part of Pakistan

"We believe that any unilateral decision imposed by Islamabad on the FATA people will be futile. We oppose the merger," Liwal told DW.

The Afghan official also said that due the ongoing conflict in FATA, it is impossible for Islamabad to involve the locals in any decision-making process.

"FATA and other areas across the Durand Line are unstable and any political change in this situation will further destabilize them," Liwal underlined, adding that Kabul will only side with the decision of the local population.

Local support

Despite Kabul's misgivings, the FATA plan has some local supporters. Local politicians have been lobbying for reforms for many years. They argue that the British era FCR status for FATA has been the reason behind the unrest.

"The FCR has held FATA back for over a hundred years. If it is merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa there will be more prosperity and will have an impact on the security situation as well," Abdul Latif Afridi, a member of Pakistan's Awami National Party, told DW.

Afghanistan - Taliban (picture alliance / Ton Koene)

Experts point to a lack of will on Pakistan's part to stop Islamists from launching attacks from the tribal areas into Afghanistan

The Pakistani government launched a military operation in 2014 against Islamist militants in the northwest. While Islamabad claims the campaign has been successful, the Afghan government says that Pakistan has only targeted groups that pose a threat to its interests. Experts point to a lack of will on Pakistan's part to stop Islamists from launching attacks from the tribal areas into Afghanistan.

"The FATA move may improve security in Pakistan but I don't think it will have any impact on the situation in Afghanistan," Wahid Muzhdah, a Kabul-based expert, told DW.

Muzhdah argued that a stronger presence of the Pakistani military in the FATA region will force militants to move their bases to the other side of the Durand line and operate from Afghan soil.