The century-old legal regime has long been seen as violating basic human rights while secluding these underdeveloped regions from modernity and progress.
In his inaugural speech, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani announced that his government will abolish what he called the "obsolete" Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). He also vowed to bring "economic, social, and political reforms" to the tribal areas, where illiteracy and poverty have helped spread terrorism.
On April 1, his new government announced the formation of a four-member parliamentary committee to look into replacing the FCR in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
Ismail Khan, a journalist and analyst from the western Pakistani city of Peshawar, says political and administrative reforms are a must in these regions. But so far, the new government has not made it clear whether it wants to merely tweak the prevailing order or introduce a sweeping new governance system in the tribal areas.
Khan, who has covered the region for nearly two decades, says people in the tribal areas have mixed views about reforms in their homeland.
"Many people want the FCR to be completely abolished, but they have divergent views about what should replace it," Khan says. "Some people want [Islamic] Shari'a laws, while others want to be integrated into Pakistan so that all Pakistani laws can be extended to it [the tribal areas] -- so it can become like any other province or district."
Many locals consider the new initiative to be a make-or-break opportunity for their homeland.
Covering some 27,000 square kilometers and abutting the Afghan border, some of the FATA's current problems are rooted in centuries of history. To undermine the fierce Pashtun opposition to the British Indian empire in the late 19th century, the British engineered an ingenious legal regime to administer those regions. Although it promised internal autonomy, the system kept isolated the Pashtun border tribes, which in recent years have become a central front in the U.S.-declared war on terror.
The current form of the FCR was implemented in 1901. Besides giving enormous authority to a local administrator called the Political Agent, the FCR prevents local residents from participating in politics. It also established collective responsibility, whereby an entire community is deemed responsible for the actions of an individual. Over six decades, Pakistani governments have done little to change that colonial order.
Latif Afridi, a Pashtun nationalist politician and tribal elder from the Khyber region, tells RFE/RL that the FATA already exists as a lawless space because Taliban and Al-Qaeda efforts have already eroded most governance structures.
He adds that Pakistan should have replaced the draconian legal regime a long time ago, but the powerful bureaucracy has prevented reforms -- partly to continue to profit from corruption in the secluded region.
"Today there is insecurity and a war is raging across the tribal areas," Afridi says. "Our tribal leaders are being killed, our homes are being burned and the people of FATA are impoverished while they continue to face an uncertain life. In these conditions, abolishing this [system of] law is much needed and the right step."
No Quick Fixes
Experts agree that the FCR and the governance mechanism it perpetuates have resulted in the current chronic underdevelopment of the region. With 60 percent poverty levels, only 17 percent of the region's estimated 7 million Pashtun residents are literate. Electricity and basic health care are denied to most of the population, and high unemployment rates push the region's youth toward extremism.
Afridi suggests that apart form large-scale development efforts, Pashtuns in the tribal areas would like to see major political reforms.
"People in the tribal areas want basic human rights," Afridi says. "They want representation in the provincial assembly of the [Northwest Frontier Province]. They also want municipal bodies and elections to choose their representatives for those bodies."
Afridi adds that all the regular laws of Pakistan should be extended to FATA, but says the judiciary in the region should also have the power to allow locals to settle their disputes in traditional tribal councils or in accordance with Islamic law.
Mehmood Shah, the former head of security affairs in the tribal areas, warns that reforms in the restive regions should be undertaken at a slow pace.
"If the government wants to implement a new law, they will need [administrative] machinery to implement that law; so first we will need to have a new administration," Shah says. "Second, we will need a new judicial system. A [robust] system of revenue is also necessary for governance. Similarly, we will also need a system of looking after the finances."
He says the best scenario for the tribal areas is to have a system of governance in line with Pakistani laws while reflecting local traditions and customs.
"This new system should combine the judiciary with the traditional jirgas [tribal councils]," Shah says. "It will also be necessary to ask them [the tribal people] if they want such a system."
Previous Pakistani governments have also announced reform plans, but few were ever implemented. Since 2002, these regions have transformed into the central front in the war on terror. The big challenge facing the new government is how to move these regions from war and conflict toward peace and development.
EYE OF A STORM:
Afghan officials first suggested that insurgents or terrorists were crossing the border from Pakistan in 2003. Relations have run hot and cold ever since. But the roots of the problem go back much further.
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