On the face of it, one should welcome the US trade representative’s recent remark in Washington that the Obama administration is doing whatever it can to pursue legislation that would create ‘reconstruction opportunity zones’ (ROZs) in Fata. However, there is another side to this much-delayed matter.
The idea behind it may be noble and well-intentioned, in that Fata has rampant unemployment, illiteracy (the literacy rate is a mere third of the national average) and high levels of poverty (over half are estimated to live below the poverty line) and this mix is perhaps what may be driving many towards militancy. However, this needs to take into account some realities. First, any move to bring about economic change has to be accompanied by political and administrative change.
Fata is still ruled directly by the federal government – through the office of the governor and the Fata secretariat – and this means that the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa chief minister based in Peshawar, just a stone’s throw from Khyber Agency, has technically no say in the running of tribal areas. Second, the residents of the area do not have access to the country’s judicial system. That is unequivocally a bad thing because despite its warts and all, the system’s presence in the rest of the country does mean that citizens at least have one avenue where they can go and seek justice.
To say that the courts will not work in Fata because of the jirga system is an academic debate because the point is that people of the region need to feel that they are part of the mainstream. Besides, there is also the issue of infrastructure, where again Fata is among the most underdeveloped in the whole country. There are roads but these are ones that mainly link the agencies to the settled districts — which lie in Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa proper.
There are schools, but many have been bombed by the Taliban, there are a handful of colleges and no university. For university education, Fata’s residents have to go to Peshawar or Dera Ismail Khan. And there is the IDP issue — how can economic reconstruction of any kind be done in a region where a significant chunk of the population has left their homes and is living elsewhere?