All attempts to mainstream the wild west of Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas (“The most dangerous area in the world,” according to then-U.S. President George W. Bush) have failed despite four decades of exertions by several governments. But this is about to change.
On March 2, the federal cabinet approved recommendations of the five-member Committee on FATA Reforms to merge the tribal belt with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. The endeavor is vital for Pakistan, and the region.
The tribal areas, which joined Pakistan in 1948 under their own set of laws, “emerged as a zone of insurgency and a threat to national and international security” especially after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, according to the reform committee’s thoughtful 81-page report. “Insurgents have used FATA to train and recruit fighters, challenging the writ of the state. In the process, Pakistan has lost approximately 60,000 civilians and martyred soldiers. In financial terms, the war against the militants has so far cost Pakistan more than $118 billion.”
Tribal-belt reforms have been a key feature of the 2014 National Action Plan, the 2013 election manifesto of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), and the 2006 Charter of Democracy between the PMLN and the Pakistan Peoples Party. Sharif’s government finally moved on this in November 2015, after military operation Zarb-e-Azb had cleared several terror-infested agencies and most of the 1 million displaced were able to return home.
Led by Sartaj Aziz, Sharif’s adviser on foreign affairs, the committee spent eight months meeting with some 3,000 tribal leaders and received inputs from about 30,000 citizens on a hotline at the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, which administers the tribal areas. Its recommendations were presented to Sharif and to the National Assembly late last year. But the merger proposal was resisted by some of the PMLN’s allies—Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl) and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, which both wanted a referendum—and tribal elders from Kurram and Bajaur agencies and F.R. Peshawar who have taken the matter to the Supreme Court. But the momentum and public buy-in work in favor of this historic play.
The JUIF had been resisting the merger wary of handing over the party’s hinterland support to rival Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which rules Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The PKMAP, sitting at the head of a trail the tribal folks take fleeing their troubled homeland for Karachi, wanted the belt made into the country’s fifth province, thus retaining a nexus that would help it make Balochistan into a Pakhtun-majority province in the long run.
Their resistance drew sharp rebuke on cable news channels, from the elected representatives of the tribal areas. These reps condemned both parties and emphasized their desire to merge with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa to become detribalized enough to enjoy the kind of normal governance and consequent economic prosperity they see in the nontribal territories. (At the same time, they also want to be rid of the jihad imposed on the region by foreign warriors determined to realize the utopia they believe Islam has promised its pious followers.) For once, the passion for retaining their pristine tribal values was not there—the passion witnessed by the founder of Pakistan, Jinnah, who met a jirga in Peshawar in 1948 and, at their insistence, pledged to retain the special status of the tribal areas, a commitment enshrined in the 1973 Constitution.
The half-in, half-out status of the tribal areas has been deployed for Pakistan’s wars. In The Khyber Rifles: From the British Raj to Al Qaeda, Jules Stewart says the Khyber Rifles—the British-raised, locally recruited tribal paramilitary force in Khyber agency—led by an officer of the Pakistan Army raided Kashmir in 1948 for covert war with India. (This force also took part in the 1965 war with India “coming within sight of Srinagar,” and the civil war in East Pakistan.) The invasion led to the Maharaja of Kashmir acceding to India. The tribesmen who participated in this 1948 raid came, also, from across the Durand Line, thus laying the foundation of a larger process of tribalization of society in Pakistan.
In The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Pakistani anthropologist Akbar S. Ahmed presents a global thesis of how “marginal” tribal societies have arisen in revolt against “suppression” by the modern state. The suffering people targeted by the U.S. war on terror had one thing in common: they were all part of communities living on the periphery. “Those who represented the center of the state usually called them ‘primitive’ and ‘savage.’ Some said their time in history was up. Love of freedom, egalitarianism, a tribal lineage system defined by common ancestors and clans, a martial tradition, and a highly developed code of honor and revenge”—these are the thistle-like characteristics of the tribal societies discussed by Ahmed. Moreover, as with the thistle, there is a clear correlation between their prickliness, or toughness, and the level of force used by those who wish to subdue these societies, as the U.S. discovered after 9/11.
Pakistan has fought most of its wars as deniable conflicts, called them jihad, and has relied on a process of retribalization of its own population to make the policy of proxy war acceptable. There was a precedent for this, in the history of Muslim resistance against the British Raj in India. Syed Ahmad Shaheed (1786-1831) remains the most immaculate articulation of the theory of jihad in Islam. As narrated by Ayesha Jalal in Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia, he may have conceived his holy war against the East India Company while living in Raebareli in northern India, but he moved his warriors to the tribal North West Frontier Province because he thought that the Pakhtun, who practiced tribal codes, were better fighters and therefore better Muslims than those settled in the plains.
Others with strong tribal memories, like the Uzbeks and Chechens of Central Asia, also moved to join the jihad Pakistan had orchestrated with global help. But in the process Pakistan unleashed a thoughtless process of retribalization of its settled areas living under municipal law. It did so in part with the help of madrassahs already alienated from its “modern” lawmaking in the shape of the 1973 Constitution, which the clerically dominated Council of Islamic Ideology was lawfully empowered to advise modifications to.
As the Aziz–led committee surveyed the tribal areas, local leaders were found to be no longer satisfied with what they had to live with. They raised objections to the modified-in-2011 Frontier Crimes Regulations, 1901, that shaped their arrested-in-time society. Frontier Regulations negated the three basic rights available to the rest of Pakistan: the right to appeal a conviction in court, the right to legal representation, and the right to present reasoned evidence. Frontier Regulations were often used to arrest entire tribes and deny them official documents like domicile certificates and identity cards. Quite disingenuously, when Pakistan needed to put away the doctor who had sneaked on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad in 2011, it used the Frontier Regulations.
Today, the Awami National Party enthusiastically supports the merger of the tribal belt with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the prospect of getting rid of a law keeping the Pakhtun in a state of retardation. It has objected to the clause of Riwaj in the Aziz committee’s recommendations. In 1948, the Pakistan government had blamed the progenitor of the ANP, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, for “indulging in anti-state activities” and arrested him along with his son and others. He was tried by the district magistrate of Kohat under the Frontier Regulations and, needless to say, was convicted for attempting to “conspire with rebellious agents of the Faqir of Ipi.”
The seven agencies and six frontier regions that comprise the tribal areas are in varying degrees of revolt against Pakistan because Article 247 of the Constitution still bars the enforcement of any act of Parliament (or order of court) in the tribal areas, the writ of state is pale there, and because of the penetration of external militants with irredentist intent. North Waziristan is where the world thought Pakistan was providing safe haven to the Afghan Taliban and facilitating or directing their assaults inside Afghanistan. Uzbek terrorists took shelter in both Waziristan agencies and were deployed in Swat when warlord Fazlullah unleashed his reign of terror there in 2008. Khyber is where warlord Mangal Bagh enjoyed sovereignty of governance for many years while literally calling the shots in Peshawar.
The example of Bagh, now aligned with the Islamic State in Afghanistan, is particularly instructive. When his “government” became too big for Khyber’s capacity to generate revenues to pay for it, he descended on Peshawar, cherry-picking parties in borderline Hayatabad for extortion and then threatening the rich of Peshawar. The snowballing of his business-of-death gave him the charisma he needed. As he killed innocent people in the agency, people owing allegiance to his “Islamic order” increased in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and in other parts of the country. He also began courting TV channels when he saw that the rest of Pakistan, too, was ripe for the plucking.
Columnist Farrukh Saleem surveyed how much Pakistan had allowed itself to be retribalized and outlined the extent of lost territory around Peshawar: “Mangal Bagh controlled most of what is west of Peshawar. He got his income by imposing heavy fines on the local inhabitants for petty neglect of pieties and sent out ‘chits’ for protection money to the markets of Peshawar. Charsadda and Shabqadar, both less than 30 kilometers north of Peshawar, were controlled by Commander Umar Khalid, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan leader in Mohmand agency.”
Darra Adam Khel, 35 kilometers south of Peshawar, was controlled by Baitullah Mehsud’s loyalists, who also controlled South Waziristan. Hafiz Gul Bahadur was the Taliban supremo in North Waziristan and ruled without any oversight of the state. From Peshawar going to Parachinar in Kurram agency, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa cities were controlled by the Taliban in a kind of diarchy with deputy commissioners. In Bannu and Hangu, the Taliban could strike at will for shakeups. Kohat, which has a major Air Force installation, was safe enough for FATA-based terrorists to place bin Laden’s wives in the care of “Al Qaeda lawyer” Javed Ibrahim Paracha, who also liaised with Islamabad’s Lal Masjid on behalf of the militants.
Almost all tribal agencies in time gave rise to warlords who used violence to tame the local population and financed themselves by preying on the provincially administered cities before military operations Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fasaad drove them into Afghanistan. (This February, Gen. John W. Nicholson, Jr., commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, revealed to Pakistan that entire tribal agencies—in particular, Orakzai—had defected to the Islamic State militant group because of its ability to fund terrorism generously. Driven by deep-seated sectarianism, the Orakzai Taliban are easily lured into carrying out massacres in Parachinar, the Shia-majority city of Kurram agency.) The rise and untrammeled success of these warlords inspired terrorism in the Punjab and gave rise to the so-called Punjabi Taliban, who carried out orders from the tribal areas in the name of madrassah-backed radical Islam in South Punjab. Instead of detribalizing the population of the tribal areas and providing health and education to them at par with the rest of the country, Pakistan unwittingly facilitated the retribalization of the settled territories in South Punjab.
Madrassahs have been the main facilitators of this retribalization. PTI’s Shireen Mazari compiled a report on just one city of South Punjab, Dera Ghazi Khan, and it was startling: “In D.G. Khan, there are 185 registered madrassahs of which 90 are Deobandi (with 324 teachers), 84 are Barelvi (with 212 teachers), six are Ahl-e-Hadith (with 107 teachers) and five are Fiqh-e-Jafaria (with 10 teachers). Of the Deobandi madrassahs, Jamia Ata-ul-Uloom, with 200 boarders, 20-day students, ranging from 5 to 25 in age, and eight teachers, receives donations from Kuwait. Jamia Dar-ul-Rehmania offers education up to Class 8 and has 350 boarders plus 230-day students and 28 teachers… The total number of Deobandi madrassah students in the D.G. Khan district is 11,535. Interestingly, in this category, it is the large madrassahs, linked to the JUIF, that receive foreign funding… almost solely from Kuwait.”
Under pressure, the Punjabi Taliban finally withdrew to South Waziristan, where they successively carried out the agenda of two warlords, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud—who were both ultimately killed by CIA drones as Army chiefs in Rawalpindi continued to think that any large military advance into the tribal areas to clean up the region would beget an unacceptable blowback in the settled territories. (Pakistan’s tribal-belt policy had been allowed to drift until South Waziristan-based Baitullah Mehsud used his madrassah pupils to assassinate Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.) In 2016, the madrassah near Peshawar that had facilitated Bhutto’s assassination was lavishly funded by the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government to avoid getting into trouble with the Afghanistan-based Taliban.
Pakistan military’s strategy of epochal war with India led the state to delay detribalization of society in most parts of the country. Tribal Balochistan was ignored despite income from its mineral wealth; land owned by the waderas of interior Sindh was left in a state of no-go, which also spread in time to many towns of Karachi (and a number of cities of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa along the Peshawar-Parachinar route) after the relocation there of the uprooted populations of the tribal areas and Afghanistan.
There were reasons that the “tribal museum” of Pakistan was allowed to continue. There was a constant pressure of lack of funds followed by the compulsion of using proxy fighters in cross-border conflicts. Pakistan has been punished for this strategy by the spread of unruly warriors to the cities located in the south of the country and a grand influx of local and external refugees driven out of their homes by deniable wars. In 2017, any plan to reintegrate the tribal belt into Pakistan proper will have to be accompanied by a careful campaign to roll back the retribalization of the rest of Pakistan that makes governance increasingly difficult.
With Fasih Ahmed.
From our March 18 – April 1, 2017, issue.