A travel through the FATA to understand the geographical, political, economic and social peculiarities of the region; the role played by jihadist terrorism; and the answers of Islamabad to this complex set of interconnected issues
THE TRIBAL AREAS OF THE NORT-EAST – FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) is a semi-autonomous region of north-western Pakistan, bordering Pakistan’s provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan on the east and south, and Afghanistan to the west and north. Geographically, FATA is crossed by the Hindu Kush, one of the world’s highest mountain ranges This mountain range, which has in Pakistan some of its highest peaks, is characterized by rocky where impervious passes are often the only transport route for the region’s inhabitants.
Demographically, FATA has a population of about 4.5 million, the majority of whom belong to the ethnic Pashtun group and to the Sunni branch of Islam. The almost totality of FATA’s population lives in rural areas, where it has been possible to preserve a century-old tribal lifestyle and historic clan ties. However, this rural anchoring has hindered FATA’s industrial and urban development and the region is today Pakistan’s poorest and most underdeveloped one.
On the political-administrative level, FATA is divided in seven Tribal Agencies and six Frontier Regions, administered by the Pakistani federal government according to laws known as Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) that date back to 1901. These laws were introduced by the British Colonial Empire to make of FATA a sort of “buffer” along the border with Afghanistan, so as to protect British India from the threats of Russian expansionism. Since then, the FCR have placed a significant degree of power and autonomy in the hands of local tribal and religious leaders and they continue today to make of FATA an exceptional case of semi-autonomous government within the Pakistani political system.
TRIBAL AREAS AND JIHADIST TERRORISM – A considerable gap exists thus between FATA and the rest of Pakistan. FATA is characterized by exceptionally high rates of poverty, underdevelopment, and illiteracy; by a rural population mainly Sunni and Pashtun that is still organized according to old clan bonds and that lacks the ethnic and religious diversity observed in other areas of the country; and by an administrative semi-autonomy that renders FATA’s people excluded from constitutional rights.
This situation, made of a dangerous mix of chronic poverty and political vacuum, has created over the past decades a fertile ground for various terrorist groups seeking a safe haven in South Asia. Especially after 2001, the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban Emirate in Afghanistan forced the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other linked groups such as the Haqqani Network to abandon their Afghan bases and seek a safe haven somewhere else. This safe haven was found in the AfPak area and, in particular, in FATA. Here, in fact, those terrorist groups could find an ideal ground for their settlement thanks to two main elements: the mountain passes that allow an immediate connection between FATA and the Taliban traditional bases in eastern Afghanistan; and the limitations imposed by the FCR upon Islamabad’s possibility of control and intervention in FATA.
Moreover, the Tribal Areas have revealed to be also an ideal ground for recruitment for those jihadist groups. Exploiting the poverty of the local people; the lack of any prospect of economic improvement; the low schooling rate and weak religious awareness; the alienation towards Islamabad due to the exclusion from constitutional rights; and the absence of reliable judiciary institutions, the groups led by Mullah Omar, bin Laden, and Shirahuddin Haqqani found in FATA many new recruits and broad popular support. These groups, in fact, were able to provide to the locals an alternative to the low-paid work in the fields and to set up satisfactory structures of shadow governance capable of providing the lacking health, education and judiciary services.
The Taliban, in particular, also managed to exploit their decade-long relationships with the local imams of Sunni madrassas to spread their message of religious extremism, so as to obtain from FATA’s people a strong ideological support.
CHANGE OF ROUTE IN ISLAMABAD… – In March 2004, after the pressures coming from an American power just hit at its heart and an international community ever more sensitive to the threat of jihadist terrorism, the Pakistani government had no choice but that of intervening with the army in FATA against the terrorist groups hidden there.
The series of military campaigns that the Pakistani army has carried out since then has curbed the process of Talibanization that was interesting the Tribal Areas and has driven out of FATA many terrorist cells. Nevertheless, the fight against terrorism in FATA is not completed and the recent attacks perpetrated across Pakistan by groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have reinforced in Islamabad the voices of those who were calling for a political approach to be combined with the military one in dealing with FATA.
On the wake of this new approach, in November 2015 the government established an ad hoc Committee (FATA Reforms Committee) that after ten months of discussions proposed to integrate FATA in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; to extend to FATA the Pakistani jurisdiction; and to suppress the FCR. The laws of the British Raj should be replaced partly by the Pakistani laws applied to the rest of the country, partly by a set of laws based on local Riwaj (traditions).
… AND ATTEMPTS AT HIJACKING – However, the proposal of integrating FATA is opposed both outside and within Pakistan.
Among the external opponents, there is Kabul. Afghanistan in fact never accepted the 1893 Durand Line that marks the border with Pakistan, so that accepting the inclusion of FATA in the Pakistani administrative and political system would be for Kabul a diplomatic defeat and would imply a cost in terms of internal political support that Ghani cannot afford to pay.
Within Pakistan, the main opposition comes from FATA’s tribal, political and religious chiefs. These local heads, in fact, do not want to cede to Islamabad the advantages obtained thanks to the FCR, since those laws placed in their hands almost unchecked powers. To this, it is then to be added that local religious and tribal leaders are worried about losing the advantages (in terms of influence and military edge) given to them by the relations that they have established with extremist and powerful Pashtun militant groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network.
It thus emerges that fight against terrorism in FATA cannot succeed until other steps are taken:
- Pakistan should embrace a strategy of fight against terrorism that aims not only to physically eliminate terrorist groups but also to cancel the popular support they found in FATA. To do so, it is necessary to take measures such as a tighter control over the religious messages promoted in local madrassas; the implementation of development plans so as to avoid situations in which local youth see in terrorism the only way to earn an income; the promotion of a secular education; the spread of non-extremist religious narratives…
- Pakistan and Afghanistan should abandon the dangerous distinction between “Afghan terrorism” and “Pakistani terrorism” and rather initiate a dialogue aimed at addressing jointly the common problem of terrorism in the AfPak area, so as to avoid that terrorist groups continue to exploit the porosity of the Afghan-Pakistani border to conduct attacks in one country and find easy refuge in the other.
- The international community should be more active in helping Pakistan (not only financially but also in terms of shared expertise) to cancel the popular support that terrorists still find in some areas of the country, emphasizing in particular how religious moderate leaders and the civil society can positively work with the Pakistani government in countering terrorism.