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Jan 31, 2017 | 09:15 GMT

7 mins read

In Pakistan, Another Attempt to Tame the Tribal Region

(A MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • The enduring war in Afghanistan will continue to send fighters across Pakistan's western border, frustrating the Pakistani army's efforts to eradicate militancy in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas.
  • Militancy in the region, along with financial concerns and the fractious nature of intergovernmental cooperation, will hamper the proposed merger between the tribal areas and neighboring Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
  • The Pakistani government will not abandon the initiative, however, because of the army's support for it.

The Pakistani government is inching closer to a solution for one of its most enduring problems. On Jan. 6, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's administration announced that Pakistan's major political parties had all approved a measure, originally proposed in 2015, to join the historically autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas with neighboring Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The merger is part of Islamabad's effort to promote development in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas — Pakistan's poorest region — and to strengthen local law enforcement to combat militancy there. The move would also free up military resources that Islamabad could then devote to its border with India. After all, New Delhi has grown increasingly assertive in responding to cross-border attacks by Pakistan-based militants in the disputed territory of Kashmir. If successful, the merger would be among the most consequential reforms in Pakistan's nearly 70-year history. The initiative at last has the political support it needs to proceed, but other challenges will keep it from reaching fruition anytime soon.

Drawing the Line

Ensuring regional security is both a driving principle behind the merger and, in the Pakistani government's view, the first step toward seeing it through. Islamabad has long struggled to govern its 2,430-kilometer (1,510-mile) border with Afghanistan, known as the Durand Line, which stretches through the Pashtun tribal heartland from Peshawar to Kabul. At times, it has even kept its northwestern border intentionally porous as a way to project power into Afghanistan. For much of the past two decades, however, the permeable boundary has been more of a security liability than a strategic asset.

Taliban and al-Qaeda militants took advantage of the lax border security after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, slipping across the Durand Line to regroup in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Eventually, the militants integrated themselves into the region's Pashtun tribal networks and began launching attacks on Pakistani soil and claiming territory in the tribal areas. Islamabad responded with operations against the militants in Wana, South Waziristan, in March 2004. The war that ensued between the Pakistani army and what later became the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan militant group continues to this day. In June 2014, former Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a campaign to quell regional militancy. Since then, terrorist attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have become less frequent.

The Pakistani government, meanwhile, has other security problems to contend with. The disputed Kashmir region has been competing for Islamabad's attention and military resources over the past year. Pakistan has increasingly turned its focus to its eastern border, where it hopes to present a credible deterrent to its rival and fellow nuclear power, India. At the same time, however, Pakistan's military leaders recognize the danger in withdrawing troops from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas before the region is stable enough. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made that mistake in 2002, when he reallocated Pakistani troops from the tribal areas to the Line of Control in Kashmir to face off with Indian troops after an attack on India's parliament. The withdrawing Pakistani forces left a vacuum in their wake that Afghan militants filled. By merging the Federally Administered Tribal Areas with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Islamabad hopes to prevent a repeat of Musharraf's misstep.

Even so, Islamabad recognizes that to truly win its war on militancy, it must prevent militants from crossing its border with Afghanistan in the first place. To that end, the Pakistani government recently redoubled efforts to enforce visa and passport requirements at Torkham, the busiest crossing point for people and cargo along the Durand Line. Islamabad also dug a ditch, 4.26 meters wide and 3.35 meters deep, down Balochistan's 1100-kilometer border. The intent is to eventually extend the ditch along the length of the Durand Line.

These measures will not be enough to secure the border with Afghanistan. Torkham is just one of a handful of official border crossings. There are an estimated 340 illegal crossings and countless untold paths through the mountains. The Pakistani government would be hard-pressed to devote the manpower necessary to secure every possible point of entry, even with its formidable army. More important, no matter what measures it takes, the Pakistani government will not be able to address the underlying issue that drives militants across the border: the war in Afghanistan. So long as that conflict continues, militants in eastern Afghanistan — especially in Nangarhar, Paktika, Khost and Kunar provinces, which border the Federally Administered Tribal Areas — will keep seeking refuge in Pakistan and putting its western regions at risk.

Logistical Hurdles

Beyond the Federally Administered Tribal Areas' persistent security problems, the proposed merger will run into financial, administrative and legal complications. Islamabad's war on militancy has displaced nearly 1 million people from the tribal areas. Repatriating that many people will be not only logistically challenging but also costly, requiring substantial foreign investment to rebuild homes, schools and roads in the war-torn region. Completing the merger, moreover, will require the cooperation of several government agencies, including the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, the Ministry of Finance and the army. But as the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor project has illustrated, intergovernmental coordination is not Islamabad's strong suit.

Then there are the tribes themselves. The ethnic groups that populate the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have historically resisted outside authority, and disagreements over whether to submit to Islamabad's rule are likely to arise among and within them. The mountain-based tribes are especially disinclined to cede to the Pakistani state's authority.

A Notable Accomplishment

Nevertheless, a council of tribal elders and various stakeholders from the region concluded after nine meetings that they would support the merger. But their approval is contingent on Islamabad's agreement to repeal the Frontier Crimes Regulations — a special set of laws that the United Kingdom implemented in 1901 to govern the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The wildly unpopular statutes prescribe such controversial measures as collective punishment, under which an entire group of people can be penalized for the actions of a single person without a trial or judicial ruling. (A market in Wana was ordered demolished under the collective punishment clause in November 2016, as retribution for an explosion that killed a Pakistani army officer.) Though the promise of repeal persuaded the local tribes to get on board with the merger, Islamabad will likely have a difficult time codifying the riwaj — customs that have governed the tribes for millennia — to replace the Frontier Crimes Regulations. That said, securing local support for the initiative, including from the tribal regions' younger leaders and from tribesmen eager to see a military withdrawal after years of devastating violence, is a notable accomplishment for the Pakistani government.

The proposed merger between the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province is just the latest bid to bring the restive tribal region under Islamabad's rule. Previous attempts — including a 1976 effort that fell apart after a military coup — have all failed. But compared with the past initiatives, the merger has much stronger support, and Islamabad has already won half the battle by gaining the support of Pakistan's politically powerful army. Though the merger is not necessarily destined to succeed because of the army's backing, it would be doomed to fail without it. 

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