Progress is a struggle against history, and in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of western Pakistan, history seems to be winning. The rugged, mountainous region is the country's most impoverished. It has earned a reputation as a hotbed of violence and bastion of resistance, an ungovernable gray zone that exists beyond the reach of Pakistan's Constitution, perpetuating an ancient system of tribalism. But things may be looking up for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. On Friday, each of Pakistan's political parties approved an initiative to merge the region with neighboring Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The proposed merger is part of a larger project to boost development and tackle poverty in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in hopes of achieving the stability that has long eluded the region. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif created a committee in November 2015 to gauge the prospects of the merger, and conditions now seem ripe to push the initiative along what is sure to be a tortuous path.
The history of the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas is one of resistance, underdevelopment and exploitation at the hands of foreign powers. In the 19th century, the region was enmeshed in the Great Game, a contest between the British and Russian empires for dominance over the Asian landmass. To guard India from Russian encroachment, the United Kingdom tried to subdue the region's tenacious Pashtun tribesmen by drawing the border of British India through the center of their tribal heartland. But the so-called Durand Line — named for British Foreign Secretary of India Mortimer Durand — only stirred resentment among the tribes and seemed to dispel any prospect of comity between the territories that would eventually become Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the late 20th century, the tribal areas became the staging ground from which Pakistan, with help from the United States and Saudi Arabia, dispatched mujahideen to fight invading Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The operation had unintended consequences, awakening an extremist impulse in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that has troubled the region in the decades since. Some 20 years later, the area once again became a strategic base in an another international war. After U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Taliban and al Qaeda fighters slipped across the Afghan border to take refuge in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, a haven that has enabled the war to drag on to this day. The legacy of the Durand Line lives on, fueling intermittent antagonism between Afghanistan and Pakistan even today. Kabul still does not recognize the boundary and claims that its border should rightfully run deep into Pakistan to encompass the Pashtun regions — the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. Islamabad, meanwhile, ramped up its efforts to secure the contested border in 2016 by installing checkpoints, digging a trench, and enforcing visa and passport requirements at the line.
The instability that continues to plague the region has become a driving force behind the initiative to bring order to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Since 2004, Pakistan has been fighting a war against militant groups in the region, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban, formed in 2007. The insurgency, which has displaced over a million people from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, prompted Gen. Raheel Sharif, then Pakistan's chief of army staff, to launch Operation Zarb-e-Azb in June 2014. Though Sharif's signature campaign against militancy in the region led to a long and bitter struggle, it has succeeded in reducing the frequency of terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
Now, Islamabad is looking ahead. The Pakistani government recognizes that withdrawing its troops would risk reversing the hard-earned gains it has made in Operation Zarb-e-Azb. At the same time, however, it needs to reallocate those troops to manage the rising threat at the country's border with India as tensions between the two nuclear powers escalate. The merger with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province offers Islamabad a way to stabilize the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas without the need for a continued military presence by integrating the region into Pakistan proper and bolstering its economy. The politically influential Pakistani military has signed off on the proposal, and Islamabad has approved a 10-year, 121 billion-rupee ($1.77 billion) development package for the region. In the coming week, Pakistan's federal Cabinet will likely meet to discuss the next steps.
Of course, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas' historical resistance to governance is not solely a product of the British Empire's border; it also has geography to blame. Mountainous landscapes and the shelter — or isolation — they provide tend to breed a sense of autonomy among their inhabitants. In addition to funding the region's reconstruction, replacing its outdated legal system and returning its displaced residents, Islamabad will still have to contend with the challenges inherent to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas' terrain. And as it has throughout history, the region's geography will militate against the march of progress along Pakistan's northwestern frontier.