The military operation in South Waziristan has resulted in a sharp decline in the frequency of suicide attacks. This relative stability may take an about-turn unless the military operation is complemented with elaborate development initiatives. The wave of militancy was not the creation of tribal traditions or resistance but the result of short-sighted state policies that segregate the region from the rest of the country, giving it an uncertain constitutional status and denying basic political freedoms and economic opportunities to its population.
Fata was severely underdeveloped even before militancy, due to government negligence, legal obstacles and structural impediments which made investment next to impossible. The surge in violence has further contributed to poverty, and the lack of employment is making the inhabitants of Fata, especially the youth, vulnerable to militant recruitment.
Winning the hearts and minds of people can only materialise when the state initiates institutional, political and economic reforms in the existing governance structure. The government needs to dismantle the colonial system of support driven by political agents who use a carrot-stick approach with the tribal maliks who are themselves increasingly dependent on militants for protection.
We need to take the international community on board in particular the US which has shown keen interest in supporting a reform agenda that would entail political diversity and competition which will improve economic opportunities and extend the constitutionally guaranteed civil and political rights. Previous attempts to counter extremism in the tribal areas have proven futile because they prioritised immediate gains over a bold initiative of fundamental changes to the political and administrative structure.
Donors, particularly the US, have allocated significant money for Fata’s development, but most is channelled through unaccountable local institutions and offices. This severely limits effectiveness and may even impede rather than encourage the process of democratisation. The international community needs to comprehend that the opponents of reform are not the people of Fata but the military and civil bureaucracies along with the local elite, all of whom would lose significant powers if the government extends full constitutional and political rights to Fata.
In 2007, the US approved $750 million aid for Fata’s development to be utilised over a period of five years but a mere tenth of that has so far been actually disbursed and spent. The foremost demand of the locals is the immediate repeal of the Frontier Crimes Regulations, replacing them with the laws of the country and giving the people the right to take their grievances and complaints to a court instead of being imposed collective punishments by a jirga. Moreover, it is necessary to allocate seats for Fata’s seven tribal agencies in the Khyber-Pahktunkhwa provincial assembly, with constituencies devised after extensive consultations with stakeholders.
While implementing new reforms it is crucial to eliminate the role of tribal jirgas and replace them with civil and criminal courts at the district level. These courts should allow defendants the right to legal representation and petition to higher courts, and the jurisdiction of the Peshawar High Court and the Supreme Court should be extended to Fata. Success of the Gilgit-Baltistan model indicates that if reforms are initiated with political commitment they are bound to be successful. The armed forces have fought a difficult battle in restoring peace in Fata. The chances of the militants returning to Fata will be bleak only if we embark upon the journey towards development.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 29th, 2010.