The Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (better known by its acronym FATA) had been created in 1849 to serve as a buffer between British India and Afghanistan, while Afghanistan itself was being softened through invasions, coercion, subsidies and diplomacy to keep Czarist Russia at bay. Having entered into a joint agreement with the Afghan Emir for the demarcation of the international border, the British also managed to persuade Russia to follow suit, resulting thereby in bifurcating the Pashtun tribes on the British side and the Turkmen, Uzbek and Tajik Territories on the Russian side of the demarcated Afghan border.
And so life went on till the events leading to the independence of India and Pakistan as two separate states in mid-August 1947 reignited Afghanistan’s passions and ambitions. While it had willingly acquiesced to the Durand Line as a de jure and de facto border between Afghanistan and British India in 1893, reconfirming it during the Anglo-Afghan Pact of 1905 and the Rawalpindi Pact of 1919, Afghanistan viewed the departure of the British as an opportunity to extend its territory till the banks of the river Indus, a throwback to the glory days of Ahmad Shah Abdali, who, on founding the Kingdom of Afghanistan in 1747, had expanded it this far west through conquests. A number of historical antecedents were however conveniently ignored whilst pursuing this agenda. First and foremost, prior to 1747, Eastern Afghanistan formed part of India’s Mughal Empire, while the rest was under control of the Safavids of Iran. Afghanistan as a Kingdom had again fragmented after the death of its founder in 1773 into tribes and city states. By the 1820s, the Lahore-based Sikh empire of Ranjit Singh had reversed the Abdali gains and even brought some areas of present day Afghanistan under its sway.
As the successor state to Ranjit Singh’s empire, British India’s unease about the territorial ambitions of Imperial Russia caused it to recognise Afghanistan as an emirate and formalise the border painstakingly drawn up by a British diplomat Sir Mortimer Durand and the Afghan Emir Abdur Rahman Khan.
The Anglo-Afghan treaty of 1919, also referred to as the Rawalpindi Pact, signed after the third inconclusive Afghan war, resulted in Britain creating a new administrative unit, which it aptly termed as the North West Frontier Province. For ease of governance, the tribal areas, which also then included the princely states of Dir and Swat, were divided into political agencies, each administered by a Political Agent, whose immense devolved power was exercised through local Maliks, carefully chosen on the strength of their loyalty to the crown. While ostensibly displaying respect to Pashtun tradition by allowing trials by jirga(a jury of local influentials), the Frontier Crimes Regulation Act, allowing for massive collective retribution, was also brutally enforced to snuff out the slightest sign of rebellion.
And so things continued till Pakistan attained independence from British rule. Apart from Pakistan Army regulars being withdrawn from the tribal agencies, nothing much changed in terms of governance. Each Political Agent, appointed by the Centre, has now under him a special force of around 2 to 3 thousand khasadars and Levies force of irregulars to enforce his writ, while the border is being looked after by the Frontier Corps(headed by Army officers). FATA is colloquially referred to as ‘ilaqa ghair’(foreign territory), a local version of the wild, wild, west. Since the Political Parties Act never got extended to FATA, the tribal influentials who were normally elected to parliament as independents, invariably sold their loyalty to the highest bidder. Left to their own devices, the free-spirited tribesmen, for whom the bearing of arms was a way of life, sought recourse to smuggling, hijacking vehicles and kidnapping for ransom in mainland Pakistan as a means of sustenance.
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan catapulted FATA into the vanguard of the resistance movement. The massive influx of Afghan refugees and freedom fighters from all over the Islamic world led to the establishment of a record number of Saudi-funded madrassas for religious indoctrination and camps for military training. It was through the porous borders of FATA that the mujahideen used to foray into Afghanistan for carrying out debilitating strikes. Pakistan in turn came in the crosshairs of the notorious Afghan spy agency Khad, having its major cities wracked by an extensive bombing campaign.
Once the various Afghan mujahideen factions resorted to fighting amongst themselves for the right to rule after the Soviet Union’s unilateral withdrawal in 1989, four countries, Pakistan, KSA, UAE and the US(which soon withdrew its support), favoured the Taliban’s bid for power, to enable stability to be restored to a torn country. The Taliban, a motley group of seminary students(mostly war orphans) of the Deobandi-Salafi madrasa system, pursued their own aim of bringing the entire country under the sway of their strict orthodoxy. They were knocking on the doors of the Panjshir valley, the only remaining bastion of resistance, when a day or two before 9/11, the highly venerated Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated through an elaborate Al-Qaeda suicide bombing plot.
As the US and its allies started off the invasion of Afghanistan with a relentless aerial bombing campaign, the Northern Alliance, a loose confederation of all northern non-Pashtun ethnicities, proved more than willing to provide boots on the ground. Seeing the tide turning against them, remnants of the Taliban as well as Al-Qaeda crossed over the porous border into FATA, the North and South Waziristan agencies in particular. The next few years saw Al-Qaeda effectively using the twin instruments of money and indoctrination to penetrate the local scene, offering promising young men positions of authority while eroding the influence of the traditionally pro-government tribal elders, physically eliminating them if necessary. As the Afghan Taliban recommenced their attacks on the US- backed in Kabul after regrouping, Al-Qaeda forged closer bonds between its array of foreign fighters and the local militants which had assembled there, while eying the vast delectable landscape of mainland Pakistan. The organisation which emerged, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan(TTP), incorporating Mehsud and other assorted tribesmen, Punjabi Taliban and foreign fighters, notably Uzbeks, Chechens and Uighurs, proceeded to consolidate its grip on FATA, while extensively targeting military, LEAs, intelligence agencies, shrines and other civilian targets. Alarm bells truly rang when the President, Prime Minister and a Corps Commander all became the subjects of assassination attempts, and the TTP started flexing its military and ideological muscle beyond FATA into the princely states of Swat and Dir, and other adjoining districts. The tactic of appeasement failed to work, and after being repeatedly deceived by peace treaties, the Pakistan Military moved to drive the intruders out, one front at a time, till it established its writ over most of FATA(except for North Waziristan and the relatively smaller Khyber Agency).
The brazen mid-2014 attack on Karachi’s international airport finally nudged the military into launching an offensive in North Waziristan, something that the US had been urging for quite some time. North Waziristan had over the years become a fortified Al-Qaeda redoubt, where militants of all shades had gravitated, the Haqqani Group being the one which NATO deemed the most problematic. Apart from the difficult terrain and well dug opposition, an additional undertaking the Army was saddled with was to oversee the displacement process of the civilians fleeing the battle zone, something the civil administration didn’t display much appetite for. It took nearly two years and 800 lives before Operation Zarb-e-Azb, as it was called, succeeded in dislodging the militants, who then proceeded to establish themselves across the border in the Afghan provinces of Kunar, Khost and Nuristan.
The cold-blooded massacre of over 150 students at a public school in Peshawar in December 2014 and the public backlash it evoked led all the official stakeholders to hurriedly formulate a 20 point National Action Plan in a desperate bid to stem the tide of radicalism and militancy. Apart from the ongoing military operation, this plan incorporated various preventive measures like clamping down on hate speech and literature and throttling of funding to banned organisations. While military courts set up under NAP continue to dispense rough justice, the remaining components soon ran out of steam because of a lack of political will. Confronted with a fresh spate of attacks in various parts of the country, the military went ahead with another wide-ranging intelligence-based Operation named Radd al-Fasad aimed at preemptive measures to cleanse the country of sleeper cells. Now that Pakistan’s security forces have established their writ over most of FATA, efforts are on to bring some normalcy to the lives of the tribesmen who had been displaced by the military operation but are now being resettled. Social services like healthcare and education had taken a massive hit, with local influentials enjoying the backing of the militants, appropriating the 900 odd girls schools in North Waziristan to their personal use. The Pakistan Military’s success in reinvigorating the health, education and agriculture sectors has inspired UN agencies and other international NGOs to step into an arena which was till recently off-limits to everyone. FATAs legal economy revolves around subsistence agriculture and livestock rearing, with its vast mining potential no nearer to tapping. The recently completed 2-year FAO project has, with monetary assistance of JICA, supported as many as 21,192 farmers in the Kurram and Khyber agencies, though the provision of livelihood in the more remote, rocky and mountainous terrains of FATA is proving to be more problematic. Small dams are being set up in a number of places for provision of electricity and supply of water for irrigation.
Now that both countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, are vociferously complaining about cross-border attacks, the obvious solution lies in evolving a joint mechanism for monitoring the common border which has been notoriously porous. This is easier said than done, as unlike the rest of the world, Afghanistan still hasn’t got around to accepting the Durand Line as the international frontier. Trouble had started brewing when British India was preparing to transfer power to its successor state, Pakistan, with Afghanistan staking its claim to the vast territory once under its control. After being repeatedly pestered, His Majesty’s Government had formally confirmed on 30 June 1950 that Pakistan, under international law, is the inheritor of the rights and duties of the old government of India in territories this side of the Durand Line. And thus the matter should have rested, but didn’t, as the issue keeps poisoning bilateral relations to this day. From a strictly legal perspective too, the 1978 Vienna Convention on Succession of States in Respect of Treaties has upheld that under the universally-recognised principle of uti possidetis juris, binding bilateral agreements are passed down to successor states.
It is no wonder then that given Afghan intransigence on the issue, Pakistan has been so obsessed with the idea of having a favourable ruling set-up in its neighbouring state that it has not shied away from backing such shady entities like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and later the Taliban. Since 9/11, Pakistan has particularly been accused of backing the Haqqani Group, the most lethal component of the Afghan Taliban.
It has now become apparent that half-hearted measures would not do. Bad blood and bad mouthing serves no purpose and has gone on long enough. It needs to be recognised that despite its flaws, the Durand Line happens to be the only demarcated border between the territories constituting present day Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan had traditionally shied away from border management issues and visa regimes for fear of offending its neighbour. However, after having repeatedly come under attack from militants basking in safe havens across the border, Pakistan has moved to strengthen border security and control.
As a first step, Pakistan completed digging trenches along 1100 kms of the low-lying border by mid-2016. Overriding Afghanistan’s objections for once, Pakistan moved to stop illegal crossings over the unguarded border by going ahead with the construction of as many as 443 security posts, a task expected to be completed by 2019. A visa regime was also instituted for the first time to facilitate authorised travel only from a few selected border crossing terminals. In order to further regulate the movement of people and to stop illegal infiltration, Pakistan has recently started fencing the volatile border, with its initial phase focussing on high priority agencies like Bajaur, Mohmand and Khyber.
It is also time for Pakistan to get on with the job of bringing FATA into the mainstream, thereby creating a distinct Pakistani identity amongst the tribesmen on its side of the border instead of leaving them in the lurch. Any wholesome solution to the FATA problem has to include a comprehensive long-term plan for development to reduce the socioeconomic gap with the adjoining ‘settled areas’. A committee formed for the purpose of FATA reforms has recommended as such. This however needs to be undertaken in the context of a democratic governance and administrative dispensation. The general consensus appears to be in favour of a temporary merger of FATA with the province of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, better known by its old name of North West Frontier Province. FATA parliamentarians have jointly moved a constitutional amendment bill to remove the biggest obstacle to the merger, while the KP Assembly has already voted for it. Political expediency is the only remaining hindrance. While doing away with the repressive colonial era Frontier Crimes Regulation Act, the government is still inclined towards appeasing the tribal Maliks by retaining the traditional Jirga system of dispensing justice through the proposed ‘Tribal Areas Rewaj Act’. This however would need to be carefully dovetailed with Pakistan’s existing judicial structure expected to be extended to the region.
Contrary to popular perception, the tribesmen of FATA are not a reclusive, isolationist lot. They have never hesitated to move out to various parts of the country and even abroad in search of opportunities. They have displayed immense entrepreneurial skills in dominating the long-haul trucking sector. Their abilities can be further honed and nurtured in the context of an effective local bodies system working under a democratic setup, in line with the rest of the country. The long-standing family and tribal ties the tribesmen straddling the border enjoy should not at the same time be suffocated by a sealed border but be nurtured through joint economic enterprises. A major initiative endorsed by the Obama administration has been the setting up of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones akin to that existing along the Jordan-Israeli border, the Egyptian-Israeli border and even the US-Mexican border. Apart from FATA, other neglected regions to the South also need to be brought into the mainstream if the genie of militancy is to be contained. In this troubled region, like elsewhere, peace and prosperity are intricately interlinked and sooner rather than later realisation has to sink in that it is only by joining hands to achieve one can the other become a reality.
Note: This article was published in the December 2017 edition of the Global Age monthly magazine.