The most critical demand of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan during the recent negotiations with the Pakistani governments, preceded and incumbent, is to reverse the merger of former Federally Administered Tribal Authority (Fata) region as per its previous status, that is outside the ambit of Pakistan’s legal framework. A state having to negotiate a deal with a banned group that has already claimed thousands of innocent lives in the country speaks volumes of the legitimacy of the process and the weakness of the state.
In effect, fulfilling that demand amounts to seceding these areas to Taliban to implement their own rule and have the freedom to create sanctuaries for their ilk with their regional and global ambitions. That will have far reaching and serious consequences for Pakistan’s integrity, reputation and future in the comity of nations.
Sadly, not many Pakistanis seem to know much about those seven districts spanning over 27,000 kilometres altogether, and of the plight of more than 5 million people (2017 census) living in what was once called Fata, bordering Afghanistan. Not to forget that they are as much Pakistani citizens as any other person residing in any other Pakistani city, town or village for that matter.
In 2018, Pakistan’s National Assembly had passed the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) Reforms Bill, which abolished the FCR and merged Fata with the adjacent Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and led to the creation of effective district-based administration bodies within the respective Newly Merged Districts (NMD). This was followed shortly thereafter by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Sustainable Development Strategy (2019-2023) which was focused on making the newly-merged districts into a secure, economically vibrant, and prosperous society with all Pakistani laws and constitutional rights applicable in these areas. Despite these efforts the region has continued to witness acts of violent extremism that have taken the lives of both civilians and security forces.
Crime rate is going up. Drug trafficking is common. The police department is understaffed, and under-equipped. The staff is not trained either. They have no idea how to register a First Information Report (FIR).
This was a big and sudden change for the region, surviving under FCR (Frontier Crimes Regulations) that was commonly known as the black law, for over a century, with little to no citizenship rights. The change was introduced without proper homework and without preparing the communities for it. Though the original plan was to have a transition phase of 10 years, but the political leadership did not stick to that plan for unknown reasons.
I had the opportunity to directly interact with more than 300 community leaders, tribal elders and youth as well as with the respective district administrations from four of the seven merged tribal districts in 2021-22, under a United Nation’s project to build community resilience and social cohesion in the region.
These interactions highlighted that the administration is unable to meet people’s expectations, and they are frustrated and dismayed. The people seem to have no idea how the new system works. Literacy level is extremely low (zero percent in some areas to about 34 percent in other parts). They do not seem to know the importance of documentary evidence, or written communication.
The district administration does not have legal authority over many issues. It has limited powers, limited financial resources, almost no equipment, and lacks trained human resource. Many departments do not have proper offices, computers, or other necessary equipment. If the district administration wants to allocate a certain piece of land to a department for building an office, there would be one or the other party that would claim ownership of the land and would go to court against the administration’s decision. The land settlement has not been executed, and there is no documentary record of the land ownership. Hence, anyone can make a claim on any piece of land.
Land disputes are taken to court but courts cannot take any decisions as there is no land record. Hence, these cases remain pending, which causes frustration for the parties involved in the dispute, and leads to physical violence. So, the civil cases turn into criminal cases, and become added burden for the police and law enforcement agencies. Large swathes of land are lying barren just because they are disputed. Neither of the two parties can use that land. This is a serious issue as a great resource is being wasted due to unresolved disputes.
Army is all around. They are not under district administration. Sometimes people are not happy with the decisions of the army command, but they don’t know who to complain to. They, often, go to the district administration, but the district administration cannot do much about it.
Crime rate is going up. Drug trafficking is common. The police department is understaffed, and under-equipped. The staff is not trained either. They have no idea how to register a First Information Report (FIR). Most of the policemen do not know the rules and regulations of their own department. Hence, their actions are based on their own whims, and could be contradictory to the rules.
Army is all around. They are not under district administration. Sometimes people are not happy with the decisions of the army command, but they don’t know who to complain to. They, often, go to the district administration, but the district administration cannot do much about it. Similarly, people in NMDs demand 3G and 4G mobile service, but army has not given permission for it. Many NGOs cannot implement their projects because army would not issue a No Objection Certificate (NOC) which is required for implementing any development or aid-related project in the area. Rehabilitation and reintegration of Temporarily Displaced Persons (TDPs) is a huge task. The district administration, with minimal resources, lack of equipment and qualified staff, and any clear direction from the top management, is unable to meet the challenge.
A society can progress only when the communities have ownership, connectedness, and a sense of security for their life, culture, and family. There is, however, an acute lack of awareness and public trust about the official procedures and services offered by the newly established departments. There is a need to allow local voices to be heard. More projects particularly aiming to conduct serious, empirical research among the NMD communities, awareness campaigns and capacity building of youth and other stakeholders are needed to further understand the contextual dynamics, specific needs of the area, effective community engagement and to outline a better future for new generations.
Instead of acceding to the TTP demands for control of the erstwhile Fata region and its citizens we must take responsibility to integrate them well under Pakistan’s constitution, and sincerely build those areas and facilitate the people living there to have trust and feel truly part of this country, affording them all the opportunities and privileges that any other Pakistani can enjoy.