Islamabad's plan to tame tribal areas

By Sultan Shahin
15 November 2001

New Delhi: Pakistan has been preoccupied with the problems of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) for quite some time. In view of the potential of the FATA to create considerable trouble for Pakistan by giving refuge to undesirable elements, including, possibly, Osama bin Laden, ft is hardly surprising that Islamabad plans to merge the FATA with NWFP.

No-one in the tribal areas is prevented from keeping modem and j sophisticated weapons. Even the govemment has admitted that hardliners are trained and sheltered in these areas and mat a parallel system of governance exists over which Islamabad has virtually no influence.

To justify the merger plan, official sources recall that during the time when the whole of West Pakistan was one unit (before the independence of Bangladesh, which until 1971 constituted East Pakistan), the FATA agencies and regions had representation in the then West Pakistan Assembly.

In addition to the merger plans, the government has also decided to impose a complete ban on the exhibition of arms in the tribal belt. In this respect, the government has rejected the tribesmen's justification that arms are a part of their culture and tradition. Instead of arms, the government wants to provide maximum education opportunities to the tribesmen.

Earlier this year, Pakistan took up the issue of the influx of Afghanis into the region with Taliban authorities. A meeting presided over by the Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas, Abbas Sarfaraz Khan, decided to keep a greater vigilance on the border with Afghanistan to prevent the entry of illegal people. The meeting was attended by the Interior Minister, Lieutenant-General Moinuddin Raider, NWFP Governor Syed Iftikhar Hussain Shah, secretaries of interior and Kashmir Affairs, and other senior officials.

A foreign ministry source told the Karachi newspaper Dawn that the high-level meeting expressed its concern over the unhampered arrival of displaced Afghans into Pakistan through "infrequent routes". Apparently upset with the situation, the source said, the authorities showed their intention to take up the matter with the Taliban and ask the latter to keep a check on its side of the border to stop a fresh influx of Afghan refugees into Pakistan.

Already hosting almost 2 million Afghan refugees, Pakistan has received during recent months tens of thousands of additional Afghan nationals displaced by the American bombing and earlier by one of the worst-ever droughts to have hit many parts of Afghanistan.

To help stem the tide of Afghan refugees, Islamabad recently closed its border with Afghanistan at Torkham and other places. But now with the Taliban government having fallen and no responsible authority yet established, Pakistan is in a quandary and doesn't quite know what to do, except responding with posting police and paramilitary personnel on the border areas. But it knows that will not be enough.

Just three weeks before the September 11 attacks, Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf pointed out the importance of the role played by the people of tribal areas in the creation of Pakistan and the defense of the country. He also expressed a commitment to concentrate on these areas so that ultimately they are brought on a par with the rest of the country.

The tribal areas suffer from two kinds of under development, social and economic, which are in fact Inter-dependent, Musharraf pointed out. As these areas enjoy a special status in the constitution, and the laws of the country do not operate in the belt, heroin factories flourished for a long time before paramilitary action was undertaken to close them down.

An editorial in the well-known Pakistani newspaper. The Nation, pointed out that all these complaints have their origin in an outmoded social base that needs to be replaced. While some of the tribal or maliks (elders) happen to be among the richest in the country, the tribal people in general fall into the category of the poorest and the least literate. "Most of the FATA being barren, there is hardly any agricultural activity in the area and practically no industry, barring a handful of privately run enterprises producing small weapons. The widespread unemployment forces many people to become involved in crime, or to refuse to pay their dues. Large-scale illiteracy and absence of exposure to the outside world strengthen retrogressive tendencies and promote attachment to primitive customs and taboos," the editorial wrote.

"The political system in the tribal area, which was devised by the colonial rulers for preserving their hold is in no small measure responsible for some of the crucial problems faced by the people in the area. Instead of introducing the rudiments of self government in the tribal belt, as was done in the rest of British India, the colonial rulers had strengthened the local tribal elders, whom they kept under thumb through political agents. This created a vested interest which is responsible for the under-development of the area and an adherence to decadent values," the editorial said.

Soon after the creation of Pakistan in 1947, the founder-leader of the country, Quaid-e-Azam M A Jinnah, ordered the ending of the "Forward Policy" devised by the British colonialists to subjugate the people of the Tribal areas. This had led to voluntary declaration of loyalty to Pakistan on the part of a number of tribes which had earlier refused to accept British suzerainty. Later rulers, however, failed to continue the policy aimed at national integration.

Apparently, development strategists suggest, both long-term and short-term measures are required to bring the tribal belt on a par with the rest of the country. More funds are needed for social development, with priority given to education and schemes aimed at generating employment. Planned efforts are required to open the insulated tribal areas to the norms and values of civil society.

The people of FATA remained deprived of the right to vote for almost 50 years after the creation of Pakistan. There is a need now, observers feet, to extend the system of local bodies in the area, with elected local councils and agency councils at the apex. Funds allocated for the development of the area should be channeled through these bodies rather than through maliks and political agents, with monitoring bodies ensuring full transparency.

Islamabad also proposes to be tough with the tribals in the matter of collecting taxes and dues. For instance, the collective tribal territorial responsibility clause of the strict Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) - governing the FATA - would be applied for the collection of monthly electricity charges from consumers in FATA.

Similarly, Brigadier Anwar, the director-general of the National Database Registration Authority, NWFP, has assured that all fake identity cards issued in the past would be invalid after December 31, 2001.

The NWFP provincial government has stressed repeatedly the need for systematic coordination among all the law enforcing agencies, especially to eradicate drug trafficking, adding that each and every official responsible for the task must fulfill the responsibilities "religiously and without any fear and consideration of consequences".

Old Pakistan hands, though, are skeptical of the ability of the government to deweaponize the FATA and of changing the region from being the den of heroin and weapon manufacturing and smuggling that it is today.

Out of 16,988 registered proclaimed offenders in the NWFP, 99 percent have taken shelter in Darra Adam Khel, Orakzai Agency, Kurram Agency and Khyber Agency, reported Pakistan's largest circulated newspaper, Dawn, earlier this year.

The total strength of the NWFP police, including officers and reserve personnel, is 34,000. But they are ill-equipped, poorly trained and poorly paid. Crime branch sources told the daily that although efforts had been made to register the names of newly-proclaimed offenders in the light of FIRs (First Information Reports) received from the police stations of the province, there are 20,000-plus unregistered proclaimed offenders.

According to a report of the crime branch, a number of proclaimed offenders are wanted by the police for crimes such as murders, car jacking, kidnapping and robberies. The list also includes the names of criminals from other provinces who have taken shelter in the FATA.

The report says that the main hindrance in arresting the criminals is geographic closeness of the tribal areas with the cities, which helps culprits to disappear within minutes from the scene of a crime. In addition, the government has no writ in the FATA owing to constitutional restrictions. The constitution guarantees full independence of the FATA and any interference by the government has been prohibited. That is why the FATA serve as a shelter for offenders and drug-traffickers.

Moreover, the tribal system in the FATA is very strong and whenever it has been disturbed the maliks have retaliated by creating a law and order situation, the report suites. The other problem is the long and porous Afghan border with the FATA Even if the political administration tries to conduct operations with the help of the army in these areas, the criminals flee to Afghanistan.

Under the complicated tribal culture proclaimed offenders have to pay a fixed amount to the maliks for refuge, which forces them to indulge in all sorts of crimes to earn a livelihood for themselves and their families.

Some people have suggested that the government, during the implementation of the deweaponization drive in the FATA, should ask the maliks who are harboring offenders to surrender them to the authorities. This would help a lot in controlling the worsening law and order situation as well as in getting hold of criminals such as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar and their cohorts, who may already be hiding there.