Waking up to FATA

For urban Pakistan, FATA is its Achilles heel because it is the hub of all terrorism. According to them, drones fuel terrorism and so drones must stop

Waking up to FATA

When we talk about FATA, the emotions stirred in urban Pakistanis are only related to drone attacks causing civilian casualties, fuelling terrorism and violating our sovereignty. We have recently seen a popular political party raising the issue of drones, conducting protests and ultimately closing the NATO supply line going through the Peshawar-Torkham border. Urban Pakistan, living under the 1973 constitution, which provides them fundamental rights like the right to fair trial, right to freedom of speech, right to access of information, liberty, dignity, equal protection under law, privacy of the home, so on and so forth, has finally recognised that the people of FATA are vulnerable and that they are ready to own the people of this region.

Of course, my delusion did not remain for long. The most important question that has failed to capture the minds and discourse of our literate Pakistanis is: why is the region kept under deliberate political and social isolation? Why is the outrage over the drone debate not linked to FATA reforms and immediate streamlining into Pakistani society? For urban Pakistan, FATA is its Achilles heel because it is the hub of all terrorism. According to them, drones fuel terrorism and so drones must stop. Beyond that debate, FATA is just not exciting enough. I apologise for trying to question the moral indignation of urban Pakistan over the drone debate. It is, however, not important for the urban dharna (sit in) participating crowd that FATA, which comprises of seven Agencies along with Frontier Region areas, remains Pakistan’s poorest region, with a population that, according to unofficial estimates, has reached over seven million. Nearly 66 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. The region continues to be directly governed by Pakistan’s federal government through a special set of laws called the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), a body of laws based on six chapters, 64 sections, three schedules. Article 247 of the 1973 constitution of Pakistan grants special status to FATA, whereby no act of parliament or the jurisdiction of the supreme judiciary is extendible to the region. The FCR guarantees no dignity of life and personal freedom to the people in the region.

The literacy rate in FATA is only 17.42 percent, compared to the national average of 40 percent. Among women, it is three percent, compared to the national average of 32 percent. The per capita income is roughly $ 250, half the national average of $ 500, with a growth rate of 2.19 percent only. With hardly three percent land holdings, FATA’s 50 percent population is dependent on trade activities with Afghan brethren on the other side of the Durand Line. FATA’s forbidding terrain further isolates tribal communities from markets, healthcare, education services and many positive, external influences.

The above statistics place FATA in the fourth world of the south. The tribal nature of the people and the geography of the region are being deliberately used to keep the region militarised. Defending the honour of the Pakistani state, the tribals were encouraged to fight jihad in Kashmir in 1948, since the fortress of Islam that is Pakistan was in danger. The people of FATA — trigger-happy cavemen — were ideal for providing human fodder from 1948 onwards to the current war on terror. The biggest war theatre in FATA was enacted by our military establishment to fight Islamic jihad in Afghanistan with petro dollars against the ‘infidels’ of the USSR. In 1979, FATA assumed special importance for our state when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. A massive jihad operation, from human fodder recruitment to drug factories, started operating in the region conveniently. During the Afghan war, more than 15,000 Arabs, Uzbek and Chechens were repatriated to and settled in FATA to fight a holy war against the Soviets.

Also, nearly 1,000 or so unregistered madrassas (seminaries) were established primarily in FATA, many of which preached jihad against infidels. The continuation of the FCR by the Pakistani state made their various adventures possible in the region from 1948’s militarisation to the ultimate disintegration of the Soviet Union to the current war on terror. There are roughly 21 leftover jihadi groups from 1979 and 39 sectarian groups operating in FATA. These jihadis have now turned into the Taliban with different interests to manipulate and control the local population. However, 13 peace agreements were signed between the Taliban and the government between the periods 2007 to 2009 without involving the local population at large. In all these peace agreements signed with the militant Taliban, people sitting in Islamabad were taken on board but most of them lack understanding of local problems while dealing with these former jihadists now turned militants. To counter the former jihadists, a military operation was initiated by the state.

Pakistan’s military has launched 12 major operations since 2002 against the Taliban. These military operations have completely militarised/destroyed the social and economic life of the people of FATA. Presently, military operations in the tribal belt have led to the displacement of more than three million people. The largest displacement is from South Waziristan where around 428,000 people have been displaced. In the summer of 2013, the Pakistani military launched an operation in Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency, which resulted in a huge exodus of more than 80,000 people. The military operations and Taliban takeover have played havoc with an already most impoverished area of the region. Agriculture, forests, water resources and lakes have been ruined. More than 32 percent of the educational institutions in the tribal areas of Pakistan have been destroyed in the militancy. Along with the bombing of schools by the Taliban, the healthcare sector has had a major setback by the targeting of polio workers in the region. FATA has 41 hospitals for its seven million strong population.

The whole debate on this war on terror has been dominated by a very parochial, false and superficial discourse. The All Parties Conference held by the Nawaz Sharif government, which had participants from all major political parties in Pakistan, was a further disappointment. The conference called the tribal people their own people but called for no immediate and drastic reforms in the region, not even by those who championed the anti-drone policy. Urban Pakistan’s imagination is only caught up with one thing: how drones fuel insurgency and kill innocent people. Let us assume these leftover jihadists did not exist in the tribal region before the drones, or are not responsible for the killing of more than 1,500 tribal elders, murder and rape of the local people. Or maybe that the 1979 radicalisation of the area never happened. And we can deny that there are no Arabs, Chechen and Uzbek militants enjoying Pakistan’s tattered sovereignty. Or maybe I keep on forgetting they are sitting in Alaqa ghair (territory which is outside the domain of civil Pakistan).

That debate can be bought by someone who is trying not to see the whole picture. Maybe if the press and media were allowed into the region we would get half of the ugly picture. However, no press and media are allowed and, under FCR’s draconian laws, no tribal can participate in national or international debate. We see no outrage over poverty and inhumane laws operating in FATA, let alone the deliberate militarisation under the pretext of Americanised jihad. If Pakistan is trying to own FATA through drones protests only, I regret to inform them that there is more to FATA than just drones. Protesting against drones can be good for one’s moral soul because they do cause civilian deaths along with those of high profile terrorists but this will not make the people of FATA Pakistanis.


The writer belongs to FATA and is a freelance columnist