Is it an exaggeration to say that every day a new militant group forms in Pakistan's tribal areas, but never a political party?
Maybe. It would be more accurate to say that every few months a new militant group forms in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
But it would hardly be an exaggeration to say there are no indigenous political parties, when there are just a few tiny groupings. One is a struggling party that launched itself last year. Another is a dormant party that dates to 1969 and whose own leaders describe it as a "nonfunctional movement."
In much of the world, it is indigenous political parties and the local civil society they represent that helps to keep extremists at bay. But in the FATA there is no such counterbalance.
Why is this the case?
The reason, locals say, is not because there is a lack of interest in politics. Nahid Afridi, a researcher who does surveys in the FATA, says that women there believe in the power of the ballot box.
Mullahs And Maliks
"In our tribal areas women want political activity so that they can participate and be involved in it," she says. "They also think that if there were more secular parties, they would be free from the influence of maliks and mullahs, and women would benefit from that."
Maliks are tribal leaders who decide how government grant money is spent and who, historically, have done little for women's development.
Mullahs interpret religious laws and customs and their interpretations regulate much of the FATA's daily life.
Both women and men in the FATA believe they do not currently exercise much voting power because -- even though they have the right to vote -- there are no popularly elected local councils to vote for.
The Pakistani military's huge presence in the FATA means that they are unlikely to welcome any possible complications posed by more active local politics in the region.
Instead, local decisions are made by maliks, who are chosen by a jirga or council of their own clan or tribe members.
What ordinary people do have the right to vote for is regional delegates to Pakistan's two-chamber parliament.
Lack Of Representation
But the FATA's seven representatives to the Senate and seven representatives to the National Assembly debate national issues, not local ones.
They historically line up with the government in order to get grants for their constituencies rather than press for changes.
The lack of representative government within the FATA has long been a sore point for residents. But if resentment runs high, there have been only a few efforts over the decades to organize local political parties and such parties have come and gone rapidly.
The experiences of one party, founded in 1969, suggest many of the reasons why. The Tihreek-e Itihad-e Qabail (Tribal Unity Movement) began with a manifesto demanding the freedom to form indigenous political parties and the right (not yet granted at the time) for FATA residents to vote for members of the parliament.
At the same time, the party called for the abolition of a set of laws known as the Frontier Crimes Regulation, which still stands today. Those laws, many dating to British colonial times, give government-appointed political agents arbitrary powers to oversee the tribal areas and, among other things, prosecute cases and hand down prison sentences without appeal.
According to one of the founders of the Tribal Unity Movement, Sailab Mehsud, the party was immediately suppressed when it appeared and its organizers were jailed for fomenting unrest.
The party later regrouped but did not resume public activities, preferring to remain dormant instead.
"At that time, the system of political agents was very vicious and strong and allied with the maliks, mullahs, and tribal elders," Mehsud says. "But we struggled hard and most of our friends were put behind bars."
Another founder of the Tribal Unity Movement, Malik Norat Khan Afridi, says he believes that if the party had not been suppressed it could have brought many FATA residents into the political process, thereby helping to prevent the rise of extremism that so bedevils the tribal agencies today.
"If we had that tribal unity movement now, there is definitely the possibility that we would not have the problems we experience now and most of them would be solved," he says.
Empty Government Promises
Since those days, and particularly under international pressure due to counterterrorism efforts, Islamabad has had to give new thought to its relations with the tribal areas.
In recent months, the government has promised to give the tribal areas the same rights to have local political parties address local issues that other parts of the country enjoy.
Specifically, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said that the country's Political Parties Act would be extended to the tribal areas, meaning that anyone could establish a party there and campaign around local issues.
A file photo of two elders at a jirga against army deployment in the tribal areas of Pakistan, Darra Adam Khel, 15 kilometers south of Peshawar, in October 2001
Currently, mainstream national parties have a cosmetic presence in the FATA, but they deal only in national issues and eschew local ones.
However, if Gilani's announcement -- part of a wider government drive for an 18th constitutional amendment to devolve more powers to the provinces -- seemed significant 16 months ago, it seems less so today.
The government initiative has yet to be moved by the ruling coalition through the National Assembly, leading many FATA activists to now question whether it ever will be.
Nahid Afridi, who does surveys in the FATA, accuses the government of deliberately dragging its feet.
Treated As A Buffer Zone
"Our President [Asif Ali Zardari] already has announced there will be political reforms [in the FATA], but even so they have not been implemented. I don't know why they don't want the tribal people to struggle for their rights, just as I don't know when they will change their policy of [regarding the tribal areas] as a buffer zone."
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari
The sense that Islamabad regards the FATA as a buffer zone with Afghanistan runs deep among residents. Many say that the Pakistani military wants to keep a free hand to operate within the tribal areas without the need to worry about local politics, just as the army currently maintains 140,000 soldiers in the FATA without ever having sought approval from a regional jirga.
That failure to seek approval is widely seen as a violation of the FATA's constitutionally semiautonomous status within Pakistan.
"Zardari, as president, has made an announcement [about the FATA]," says Latif Afridi, another politician from the region. "But there has been no implementation because the army and the army generals don't want it."
So far, the only change related to the FATA that has come from last year's government announcement is the renaming of the former Northwest Frontier Province as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The move was widely welcomed by Pashtuns because it gives a Pakistani province a Pashto name, but it also is seen as a purely symbolic gesture.
Meanwhile, starting an indigenous political party within the FATA remains difficult even on an informal level.
Because Pakistan also has never extended its Press Publication Act to the tribal areas, no one inside the FATA is allowed to start a newspaper. That leaves organizers with few means to reach out beyond the community level, much less build a regional base.
Still, local parties sometimes try to form. Last year, a fledgling new party, the FATA Democratic Movement, launched with much the same agenda originally put forth in 1969 by the Tribal Unity Movement. The new party's agenda, once again, is to get rid of the Frontier Crimes Regulation -- the symbol of Islamabad's distant but controlling hand -- and promote human rights, including women's rights.
Nascent Parties Face Intimidation
The party, based in Khyber Agency, has sought to reach out via letters to like-minded people in other parts of the FATA. But it has found its ability to do so severely curtailed by the unrest in many areas, including in the neighboring Bara district.
"Because Bara is disturbed and has a curfew and army operations, we can't go there," FATA Democratic Movement leader Malik Abdul Rahim Kokihel says. "The [neighboring] Mohmand [Agency] is also facing a very bad situation, and we tried to go there but we couldn't.
"In South and North Waziristan, we have our friends; we contacted them and invited them to be part of our organization. They agreed and liked the idea and they promised but in the end they received letters from banned militant groups in the area telling them to 'sit quiet, there is only one organization [i.e. the Taliban] in the area, no other organization will be tolerated and nobody is allowed to talk about politics or even think about it.'"
The Taliban's letter may be telling. If the FATA is unable to develop a homegrown political process, there is not much that stands between militancy and the rest of the population except for a rapidly unraveling system of maliks.
Why a "rapidly unraveling system" of maliks? Because since 2001, some 939 maliks have been assassinated in the tribal areas either by militants or by the Pakistani intelligence services as they compete for the maliks' loyalties.
The assassinations have undermined the tribal areas' traditional social structure. But that's not all. They also ensure that, as long as there is no safety net of local political parties to bolster civic values, the Taliban will have an enviable amount of room for spreading their own values instead.