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Pakistan's Tribal Areas Pose Crucial Challenge For Zardari

  • Abubakar Siddique

Asif Ali Zardari
A crucial test for Pakistan's president-elect, Asif Ali Zardari, will be addressing the complex problems in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the vast stretch of territory on Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, which security forces tenuously control.

When Zardari, the co-chairman of the governing Pakistan People's Party (PPP), takes the oath of office on September 6, he will inherit exclusive constitutional powers over these tribal areas, where the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are thought to have sanctuaries and where local residents are becoming increasingly alienated and impoverished.

Munir Khan Orakzai, a leader of lawmakers from the tribal areas in Pakistan’s lower house of parliament or National Assembly, tells RFE/RL that many tribal parliamentarians decided to abstain from the presidential vote because their demands have not been met.

“Since August 6, some 500 people have been killed and 800 injured in sectarian clashes between Shi'ites and Sunnis in Kurram Agency [tribal district]," Orakzai says.

"Every day, the government promises us that they will send security forces to put an end to the fighting, but it’s the 28th day since the fighting began and the government has failed to send a single soldier or a bullet to stop the fighting. Every day, 50, 40, 20, 60, or 10 people are killed. And the government is not even sensitive to the fact that providing security is its primary responsibility.”

Little Accomplished

Some 18 legislators from FATA in the National Assembly and Senate joined the governing coalition after February elections brought a PPP-led alliance to power. Orakzai said they had hoped that Zardari, as head of a popular political party, would use his influence to resolve FATA's complicated problems.

But so far, they say, Zardari has done little.

During his inaugural speech in March, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced that his government would abolish what he called the "obsolete" Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), a century-old colonial-era law that Islamabad still uses to administer the FATA. Gilani also promised to bring "economic, social, and political reforms" to the tribal areas, where illiteracy and poverty have created conditions for terrorism to spread.

But the government was soon distracted by political squabbling. International pressure and the failure of peace agreements with the Taliban forced the government to launch military operations against extremist fighters.

Covering some 27,000 square kilometers and abutting the Afghan border, some of 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, the FCR, to administer those regions. Although it promised internal autonomy, the system also kept the Pashtun border tribes isolated.

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.

Complications Growing

Now the presence of numerous foreign Islamist militant leaders and their followers puts the region at the center of a larger regional and global conflict. This makes it more complicated for Pakistani government leaders to address FATA's problems.

Ijaz Khan, a professor of international relations at Peshawar University, believes that Zardari, although he will have all the legal powers he needs to make crucial decisions about FATA, is unlikely to use them.

“If you look at Pakistan's political system and its political traditions -- forgetting about the written constitution for the moment -- the military still considers itself, rightly or wrongly, in charge of security affairs," Khan says.

"They think that the civilians do not have a sound understanding or commitment to such issues. So it is the military’s responsibility. And they consider this issue of [FATA] a security issue, an issue about their role in the war against terrorism. That's why I do not expect any major changes in the policies [toward the tribal areas].”

Khan adds that the PPP had been advocating some administrative and legal reforms for FATA. The most significant are the abolition of, or changes to, the FCR, as well as legislation that would allow the country’s political parties to work in FATA. He says that if those initiatives are implemented, it might prove to be the start of a stabilization process in that impoverished region.

'Alienating The Pashtuns'

Latif Afridi, a veteran Pashtun nationalist leader of the governing Awami National Party in Peshawar, says that the PPP broadly agrees with his party that resolving FATA’s problems will require the tribal regions to be integrated into the country’s political, legal, and economic mainstream.

Afridi says that the people in the tribal regions see the "permanent establishment" -- comprised of the civil and military bureaucracy -- as being complicit in, and responsible for, ongoing troubles in their homeland.

"If [the civil and military bureaucracy] do not agree to fundamental reforms in the tribal areas and they do not commit to cooperation with the political parties in this regard, [then] it might result in alienating the Pashtuns of the tribal areas to a degree that they blame Pakistan for creating insecurity in their regions -- and that it does not consider them as its own [citizens]," Afridi says. "So they will start looking outside to seek help from anyone whom they think could provide security and restore peace. This will be a really dangerous development.”

For his part, Zardari says he sees reform in the tribal areas and other neglected regions as a key priority for his government and presidency.

In an opinion piece in "The Washington Post" on September 4, Zardari wrote: "I am committed to a democratic, moderate and progressive Pakistan.... I will work to defeat the domestic Taliban insurgency and to ensure that Pakistani territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on our neighbors or on NATO forces in Afghanistan."

'Take Everybody Along'

Farzana Raja, a PPP leader and a member of the parliament, says the government is committed to bringing political reforms and economic development to the tribal areas. But their first priority is to strengthen the parliamentary form of government so that the legislature can be transformed into the country's top decision-making body.

"We have to take everybody along, including FATA members [in the parliament] and representatives of FATA and all other members [of different political parties] who are sitting in the parliament," Raja says.

"There are religious [Islamist] political parties [and] they are also sitting in the parliament. So we have to take everybody along and we have to decide in the parliament. Whatever parliament decides, then it will be implemented through the government.”

But creating consensus within parliament -- and then implementing their recommendations -- might prove to be lengthy and complicated.

The situation on the ground in the tribal areas, where hundreds and perhaps thousands of people have been killed during the past month’s fighting, will require Zardari's immediate attention. It will also test his declared resolve and commitment to change the culture of governance in Pakistan.
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