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The Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, popularly known as Fata, have once again garnered attention in recent months. Its present system of governance was introduced by the British for the furtherance of their imperialistic designs in South Asia. To thwart the much-feared, alleged Russian advances towards India – the backbone of the British Empire – the colonial administration planned its penetration of the Pakhtun-dominated areas, known for their inhospitable mountains and passes inhabited by ‘wild’ tribesmen. The imperialists relied heavily upon local support and took various steps to keep the tribesmen under control. Hence the introduction of the Maliki system, followed by the introduction of some strong laws including the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR). Political agents were given huge funds and, interestingly, these funds have not been auditable since. They used these funds at their own discretion, with a major share going to the tribal maliks.

The same system continued even after the transfer of authority from Britain to Pakistan in 1947, much to the chagrin of the Pakhtun intelligentsia living in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

On August 14, 2009, Asif Ali Zardari, then president of Pakistan, announced the long-awaited political, judicial and administrative reforms for Fata. In the reform package, the Political Parties Order of 2002 was extended to Fata, and some changes to the notorious FCR were introduced. All major political parties showed their willingness to fully support the reform package. However, despite developing a consensus among the major political parties and some stakeholders in Fata, the government did not travel the whole distance and deferred the matter of Fata’s political and administrative future for unknown reasons.

The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) government formed various committees to probe the matter further. Eventually, a high-powered Fata Reforms Committee, headed by Sartaj Aziz and including General (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch, minister for states and frontier regions, recommended Fata’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. To the utter surprise of many, two of the governement’s allies, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), opposed the merger on one pretext or the other. The former is opposed to it as it sees the merger as part of American hegemonic designs in the region. While it can rightly claim to have some representation in Fata, the latter has no vote bank in the tribal areas.

While the guessing game continued, the daily Dawn published a report on December 26, 2017, titled ‘Historic decision on Fata-KP merger taken’. According to this, “The high-powered National Implementation Committee (NIC) on Fata Reforms has endorsed the merger of tribal regions with northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and agreed that Islamabad would make a policy statement in this regard.” The report continued, “The NIC, which met last week and was chaired by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, also decided and agreed to let Fata elect 23 members to the KP Assembly in the general elections scheduled to be held in July 2018.”

The meeting apparently took place on December 18 but for various reasons there has been no official confirmation or denial of this news report. Dawn also reported another meeting chaired by Abbasi in Landi Kotal, where he announced that the abolition of FCR “is a matter of days and not months as it is a necessity not a political slogan”. All these announcements could well be a government tactic to avert pressure from most political parties that want Fata reforms to go ahead immediately.

But despite assurances from Abbasi that the matter will be resolved in days and not months, there still exists much uncertainty over whether the merger and other related reforms will become a reality in the near future.

The tribal maliks and a few more who enjoy the confidence of the Pakistani establishment are obviously disturbed over the whole matter and are raising their voices in dissent and demanding a separate province for the tribesmen. But if the government loses this opportunity for reform, it will lose the chance to bring peace and tranquillity to Fata, something which is detrimental to the stability of Pakistan. Such a missed opportunity is certainly not something that most people in Fata want.

This article was published in the Herald's January 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.