By Zia Ur Rehman

Feb 24-March 1, 2012

As demands for new provinces surge, the people of the Federally Tribal Administrated Areas (FATA) have also started considering becoming a part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or a new province. The debate began when the government gave Gilgit-Baltistan a provincial status in 2009.

The terrain of FATA lies between KP, Balochistan and the neighboring Afghanistan. It consists of seven tribal agencies – Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, North Waziristan and South Waziristan – and six Frontier Regions (FRs) – FR Peshawar, FR Kohat, FR Bannu, FR Lakki Marwat, FR Tank and FR DI Khan. The region has a total area of 27,220 square kilometers, and is almost entirely inhabited by Pashtun tribes.

Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and especially the US arrival in 2001, the region has become a hub of militancy. The area is considered to be the epicenter of violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan and a major source of international terrorism. All the seven tribal agencies and adjacent FRs have been affected by the rise of militancy and the military operations carried out in response.

The people of FATA believe the government should take measurements to end underdevelopment, backwardness and violence in the areas. “The tribal region is still being governed by the inhumane Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) dating back to the occupation of the Pashtun frontier region by the British in 1848,” said Gul Muhammad Mamond, a political activist from Bajaur Agency.

There is also considerable external pressure on Pakistan to change the current administrative setup in FATA. The massive turmoil caused by militancy and the subsequent military operations to re-establish the government’s writ in FATA has caused irremediable damage to the old administrative and legal governing system, and the new socio-economic landscape and power structures that have emerged call for a fundamentally new social contract, experts say.

But politicians are divided on whether the territory should be merged with KP or made into a separate province.

The Awami National Party (ANP), the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and a number of citizen groups want the merger of the tribal regions with KP.

“FATA is an integral part of KP and should therefore be merged in the province after taking all stakeholders on board,” said Bushra Gohar, central vice president of ANP and an MNA. “I don’t believe in forcing decisions on people. There is a general consensus among political parties that without the integration of FATA and equal rights and opportunities for its people, sustainable peace and development is not possible.”

ANP has declared 2012 the year of FATA to focus on the social, political and economic priorities of FATA and hold jirgas, meetings and other events with local elders, elected representatives, the public and other stakeholders in an effort to evolve a consensus on the ways forward on priority issues, she said, adding that if FATA continues to be used as strategic space and its people held hostage in the regional power play, no amount of funds will benefit the region.

Nisar Lala, a prominent political activist from South Waziristan, also supports the merger of tribal region with KP. “Pashtun land was divided into four parts: Afghanistan, KP, FATA and Balochistan. The people across the world are struggling for the unification of their divided land. But some forces want to keep Pashtuns divided, because they follow the colonial principle of ‘divided and rule’.” He said FATA and KP were geographically and ethnically the same. “As one big province, the people will have a greater say in national and international affairs.”

The people of FATA depend for health, education, and commerce on KP. A large number of people have migrated to nearby cities of the province. The administration of the tribal regions is handled from the FATA Secretariat in Peshawar.

But influential politicians who win the elections in FATA on the basis of tribal strength are strongly opposing the merger, and want the tribal areas to become a separate province.

“I was the first MNA to have raised the issue of a new Khyber province consisting of all tribal agencies of FATA in 1993,” said Muhammad Shah Afridi, a tribal leader from Khyber Agency.

He says the actual population of FATA is higher than those of Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, and that is why it deserved a status of a separate administrative unit.

His opponents say the demand may benefit the Taliban and other militant outfits. “The beneficiaries of the old system, especially Maliks (tribal chiefs), political agents and wealthy independent political figures want to see the continuation of FATA’s isolation. Such a set-up is also useful for Taliban militants,” said a political scientist at Gomal University in DI Khan.

Sources in the government say it might hold a referendum on the issue. Last August, President Asif Ali Zardari introduced a regulation to amend the FCR under Article 247 of the Constitution and also extended the Political Parties Act of 2002 to FATA, allowing political parties to operate there as they do elsewhere in Pakistan. Prior to the extension, FATA’s 12 members in the National Assembly were elected independently and could not join a political party.

Human rights activists say as long as corrupt practices prevail in the country, reforms cannot be implemented, particularly in FATA where the government’s writ has been challenged.

Ejaz Mohmand, president of FATA Lawyers Forum, says both the demands are premature and might not be feasible. “In the first phase, for at least five years, there should be an elected council that decides the future of FATA. The extension of jurisdictions of the high court and the Supreme Court, implementation of rights guaranteed by the 1973 constitution, and separation of judiciary from the executive are measures that need to be taken immediately.”