As an opposition leader, Imran Khan was one of the biggest supporters of the merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas with the adjoining Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and fierce critic of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s government for dragging its feet in accomplishing this task.
After he won the 2018 general election and was installed as prime minister on August 18, Khan was given the opportunity to complete the merger. Though it was overwhelmingly approved by the parliament in May, as a result of a constitutional amendment that needed the support of a two-thirds majority, the former Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government did not have enough time before the July 25 general election to implement it. It therefore fell to the new government, led by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, to move forward with the Fata reforms process and bring into the national mainstream the five million people living in remote tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
Khan has formed a task force to expedite the reforms in the erstwhile Fata and remove any hurdles to its merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is headed by one of his advisers, Muhammad Shehzad Arbab, a retired bureaucrat who was a member of the Fata Reforms Committee led by Sartaj Aziz, who served as an adviser on national security and foreign affairs to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
The merger was initially scheduled to take five years, but this was cut to one year as the process was speeded up by the former government under pressure from opposition parties, the military and a vocal group of political and social activists in Fata. This sudden haste left many questions unanswered concerning the transition period, as several administrative, political, judicial and economic measures need to be taken to complete the merger. The delay in initiating these measures is causing discontent among those seeking quicker reforms in Fata, which has been neglected since Pakistan’s independence in 1947 and is the most under-developed region in the country.
The lack of meaningful reforms and a weak writ of the state in Fata have made it a fertile breeding ground for militancy. The open border enables militants to easily cross the long and porous Durand Line dividing Afghanistan and Pakistan to launch attacks and seek refuge in the neighboring countries. Though Pakistan is now fencing the border, which stretches for nearly 2,600 kilometers, this is a challenging, time-consuming and costly task due to the harsh mountainous terrain and a lack of cooperation from the Afghan government, which has not formally recognized the Durand Line as an international border.
The transition of the seven tribal agencies and six Frontier Regions in Fata into tribal districts and sub-districts following the merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the new government. PTI is in power in both the center and the province, which means it should be easier for it to implement the Fata reforms, make available the resources needed to execute much-needed development projects, and extend Pakistan’s judicial and policing systems to the tribal districts. Promised special funds of up to PKR 100 billion a year, in addition to an annual development program worth about PKR 24 billion, could transform Fata if the money is made available in time and properly spent to overcome security and capacity issues.
The transition of the seven tribal agencies and six Frontier Regions in Fata into tribal districts and sub-districts following the merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the new government.
However, meeting the timelines of certain key Fata reforms could pose problems. The plan to hold the local-government elections in the tribal districts in October 2018 did not materialize because a delimitation of constituencies could not be completed in time. Efforts are now being made to schedule these polls for March 2019, along with the rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. A system of local government is seen as being an essential part of making the tribespeople feel involved in grassroots democracy.
The next milestone will be the election to fill 23 Fata seats in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, of which 18 are general seats, with four reserved for women and one for religious minorities. At the time the merger was approved, assurances were given that the polls would be held a year after the country’s 2018 general election. By this reckoning, the elections in Fata for the provincial assembly ought to be held in July 2019. This will not be easy considering the scores of challenges facing the newly elected government.
Despite the planned merger, Fata has not really changed. After the generally hated Frontier Crimes Regulation was scrapped, following the extension of the Supreme Court and Peshawar High Court to cover the area, the tough Fata Interim Governance Regulation 2018 is now in place there.
The army will remain deployed in the strategically located area, which is spread across 27,222 square kilometers, for the foreseeable future to deal with security threats posed by Pakistani militants based across the border in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has not reconciled itself with the idea of Fata’s merger after rejecting it on the grounds that it was being done in the presence of the Pakistan Army troops deployed there and against the will of tribal people.
Considering the realities of the situation, it will take some time yet for Fata to become a normal place where all Pakistani laws are applied and enforced.
• Rahimullah Yusufzai is senior political and security analyst in Pakistan. He was the first person to interview Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and twice interviewed Osama Bin Laden in 1998. Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1