In FATA, Pak army may be on verge of a paradigm shift. But it might be too late.
Last month, the Pakistani army launched a new offensive in North Waziristan, which came close on the heels of unprecedented air strikes aimed at Islamist groups. This troop deployment is different from previous ones, in its sheer magnitude and its targets.
North Waziristan is one of the best known Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a region which was demarcated by the British to act as a buffer against Afghanistan, as Russia’s southward expansion in the Great Game had set off several wars. The British never managed to establish any real control over the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Not only was the Durand Line disputed by the Pashtun tribes straddling the “border”, but some of those located to the east also continued to swear allegiance to the Afghan rulers.
After 1947, taking into account this sense of independence, the Karachi government followed the path trodden by the British: it relied on local leaders, the maliks, to whom it granted an annual stipend and considerable autonomy. As the name implies, the agencies of the FATA come directly under the authority of Pakistan’s president, who delegates power to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governor to oversee the administration. But at the level of each agency, power lies mainly in the hands of the political agent (PA, whose name and scope of action have not changed since the British), who enjoys extensive authority under the British Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), which remained in effect after 1947. According to this body of laws, the PA, a bureaucrat appointed by the governor, could punish any tribe as he saw fit. He could imprison whoever he liked for three years without having to offer justification. Imtiaz Gul, an expert on the FATA, believes, “The main reason for the popularity of successive Islamist movements in the tribal areas stems from the draconian system of the FCR… the search for a fair justice system and the craving for equal citizenship has come to be synonymous with sharia” (The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier, p. 53). Many Islamist groups, in fact, claim the role of dispenser of justice, not only because they purportedly redress the wrongs done to the downtrodden, but also because they combat inequalities inherited from a tribal order transformed a quasi feudal system under the British. This was one of their justifications for the recent assassinations of maliks, who have traditionally supported the cause of Pashtun nationalism, inherited from Abdul Ghaffar Khan.
In the 1980s, Islamist movements began to prosper in the FATA because of the anti-Soviet jihad. At times, up to 40,000 people crossed the Durand Line daily at Torkham in the Khyber agency, one of the border crossing points, and in 1988, 104 of the 278 refugee tented villages in the Pashtun areas were in the FATA continued…