At least since 9/11, Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) have attracted much domestic and international attention as the hotbed of global jihad. But in the rush to make sense of this complex area and its people, scholars, reporters and policy wonks alike, have fallen for stereotypes, cliches and myths.
The most pervasive of them all, concern the peculiarity of Pashtun tribal and cultural norms. In its crassest form, the ‘cultural’ argument rooted deep in British colonial ideology strips tribal Pashtuns of their humanity and mystifies them as ‘noble savages’. How do you tame these savages for their own good? Enter, the tailor-made Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) of 1901, a system of indirect colonial rule enforced by the Political Agent (PA), the operative system of governance to this day. With expansive judicial, administrative and coercive powers at his disposal, the PA maintains social control over the unruly tribes by bribing or coercing the state’s local proxies, the maliks. Under the FCR, the PA has the powers of arbitrary arrest and detention without the right of bail, discretionary control over criminal and civil justice through a distorted jirga system, and of course, the truly heinous power to punish entire tribes under ‘collective and territorial responsibility’.
Supplementing the seductive simplicity of the noble savage is the myth of the jihadi Pashtun, found in both, policy and media commentary. In this equally reductionist view, jihad is entrenched in Pashtun history going back to tribal revolts against Sikh, Mughal and British colonial rulers of India. Fast forward to the present, this jihadi DNA can explain why Taliban militancy has flourished in Fata. But tribal rebellions, many of which were strategically framed as struggles for religious revival, were equally about political autonomy. And let’s not forget that the most significant Pashtun political movement of the 20th century was not some militarist campaign for an Islamist utopia, but a pacifist, secular anti-colonial struggle waged by the Khudai Khidmatgars (Red Shirts) led by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. Besides, if jihad is really a Pashtun vocation, why are jihadi tanzeems like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, born and bred in the Punjab?
If the Pashtuns are jihadis, it follows that they must also support Islamists politically. The evidence cited for this claim: The success of the Muttahida Majlise Amal (MMA) Islamist alliance in the 2002 elections in both Fata and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) No doubt Islamist parties like the JUI-F have support in the area, partly because the ban on competitive party politics privileges the mullahs who can use madrassas for political mobilisation. Besides, the MMA’s clean sweep was not necessarily a ringing popular endorsement of their politics. It was also the result of the military’s manipulation of that election aimed at sidelining the more moderate political parties. If Pashtuns really were such diehard Islamists, why did the ANP and PPP rout the mullahs in the 2008 elections both in K-P and Fata?
In fact, the growth of violent extremism in Fata is neither the product of public preference nor of some immutable Pashtun culture. Instead, it is the result of poor, corrupt and oppressive governance; rampant poverty and criminality; the Pakistani state’s use of the area as a launching pad for its jihadi proxies; and the military’s ‘peace deals’ with militants, especially under General Pervez Musharraf, which undermined already tenuous state authority by ceding them control over large swathes of territory.
If the Pakistani state is really serious about fighting militancy in Fata, no amount of military force is likely to be sufficient. Fata is in desperate need of radical governance and political reforms, as well as economic development to dent the appeal of extremism. Cognisant of this imperative, President Asif Ali Zardari announced a package of reforms in 2009, including amendments to the FCR, which granted the right of bail and reduced the arbitrary powers of the PA. But no amount of tinkering with this colonial monstrosity can ameliorate the genuine grievances of the local population. Hence, it must be abolished and the region either integrated into K-P or converted into a separate province, depending on the wishes of its people. The Political Parties Act, 2002 must also be extended to the area to allow normal, competitive party politics. Conditions on the ground in each agency will surely decide the timing and sequence of reforms. But there is simply no political or moral justification for keeping Fata trapped in its colonial past.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 21st, 2011.
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