[Originally published in the Daily Times Op-Ed pages]
“We consider ourselves Pakistani, but unfortunately the government of Pakistan does not” were the resounding words uttered by a resident of FATA I spoke to recently. “As you entered this Agency, you must have read the board that says ‘Ilaqa-e-Ghair’ (area of the others), does that not show how we are not considered equal?” he substantiated further.
As most of Pakistan is festive with green and white, decorative lights, and fireworks this August 14 celebrating Pakistan’s independence from British rule, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) continue to be ruled solely under the Frontier Crimes Regulations promulgated by the British in 1901. But even if this is not a cause of concern for the residents of FATA who might want to celebrate their formal joining of Pakistan through the Instruments of Accession signed by Jinnah in 1948 at the Bannu Tribal Jirga, four major hurdles, namely the political administration, militants, military, and foreign intervention keep them from being independent citizens of Pakistan.
Within the political system of FATA, the main person with power, often referred to as the ‘King of the Agency’, is the Political Agent, appointed by the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who acts as an agent of the president of Pakistan. The political agent’s office is the administrative as well as judicial authority in FATA, and effectively, the only representation of government in the area. Access of the citizens to the office is increasingly difficult due to the security situation, which also means absence of checks and balances through media and civil society.
Further, the people of FATA are frustrated with the maliki system, whereby tribal heads, or maliks, appointed by the British and carried forward on a hereditary basis, are paid an allowance by the Political Agent, and make decisions mostly in favour of the party that pays them the higher amount during dispute resolution through a jirga (community court). Moreover, the grievance of most of the youth from FATA is that despite being educated through hard work, they are deprived of decision-making positions like the maliks who have power because of the system of inheriting the seat.
The only representation the people of FATA have is voting to elect 12 representatives to the National Assembly as per Article 51(3) of the Constitution of Pakistan, but, as per article 247(3) of the Constitution, none of the laws made by parliament apply to FATA, unless ordered by the president of Pakistan. There is also no formal police force, but only paramilitary militias formed by tribes, sometimes as ‘peace lashkars’ (battalions) to protect the government’s interests against militants.
Adding to the woes of the residents of FATA is the problem of militancy. Mujahideen during the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s were trained and stationed in the region, and many locals were also recruited through mass propagation of jihadist ideology. Today, the same ideology is at work against the powers that had aided these Mujahideen against the Soviets, namely the United States, but those suffering the most are the locals. The sight of dead bodies in the markets and on the roads is common, and the bodies usually have a note that marks them as a spy — a spy for either the CIA, the ISI, the Pakistan army, or any other foreign agency. Additionally, militants are also on a kidnapping-for-ransom spree, picking up anyone they consider worthy of a bargain. Furthermore, militants also force young men to join them in jihad against the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and in case of refusal, they are to pay as much as 30,000 rupees as compensation — almost like a military conscription system.
Since militants have started to take control over parts of FATA due to the void left by the state, the military stepped in to conduct operations against suspected militants, as well as to secure other vulnerable parts of the region. This has taken a very high toll of the local population. Firstly, because of the Action (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulation, 2011, the army has legal cover for detaining anyone they deem suspicious without an arrest warrant or explanation. Secondly, the military operations have been largely unsuccessful in capturing or killing any high-value militant targets, and many of the casualties are said to be civilians, though details are difficult to collect due to lack of access to the area. Thirdly, life has been made difficult for the locals due to the curfews that are imposed by the military, especially when convoys are transporting soldiers or supplies.
Lastly, foreign intervention in the form of intelligence agents and drone attacks has added more misery for the locals. The presence of foreign agents in the area has led to a lack of trust amongst the locals, and added to the constant threats and killings by a very strong vigilance force of militants looking for spies. Secondly, drones operated by the CIA that target suspected militants in FATA have had a major psychological, social and economic impact due to the frequency and uncertainty of the attacks, and the disturbance these factors, added with the constant buzzing sound, cause for the local population. The precedent of civilian casualties, including children as well as elders, as the March 17, 2011 drone strike on a jirga demonstrate, make the locals fear drones further.
With all these four major factors in play, simultaneously, in a volatile territory, it is certain that these 4.5 million citizens of Pakistan do not enjoy the independence that the rest of the country celebrates every August. “We have not reached the stage Balochistan has; we want to remain with Pakistan, but all we want is acceptance as equal Pakistanis, and development and peace in our area,” pleaded one of the tribal elders from FATA in a conversation about the situation.
Normalisation of the situation has to be according to the wishes of the residents of FATA, and it is up to the will of the government of Pakistan to make progress in that direction. Meanwhile, each Pakistani must raise his or her voice in support of a life of dignity, justice, and security for the people of FATA, so that we are able to truly celebrate independence as one collective nation.