This month Pakistan pledged it would spend USD $1 billion a year for the next decade on mainstreaming its tribal areas. The funding and other legal reforms—including a proper police force for the region and court system—would go a long way towards winning the trust of locals, who have endured the brunt of a nearly two-decade long war. Instead of following through on promised reforms, however, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has taken an increasingly hard-handed approach to the region, turning on former allies who are critical of the slow pace of change there. Ensuring stability in the tribal areas will require policies that make locals stakeholders in the future of Pakistan—in sharp contrast to how they have been treated for more than a century.  Khan’s government needs to make sure it implements reforms on the ground lest it risk losing the loyalty of the tribal areas and further incubating insecurity.

The Unknown Cost of the War on Terror

The formerly Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, is home to around five million people, nearly all of whom are ethnically Pashtun. They have endured a war since 2001, when the US invasion of neighboring Afghanistan pushed thousands of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters into FATA, and a power vacuum enabled them to run a jihadist statelet that fought the Pakistani government for more than a decade.

Ensuring stability in the tribal areas will require policies that make locals stakeholders in the future of Pakistan—in sharp contrast to how they have been treated for more than a century. 

At the time, Pakistan’s constitution explicitly barred the country’s judiciary and Parliament from exercising any power there, and locals lived under the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulations, or FCR.   Locals were not treated as individuals, but as tribes, and the central government—first, the British colonial authority and, after 1947, the Pakistani state—had no obligation to build any infrastructure there.  Tribal elders decided how to solve all kinds of disputes, from simple arguments over land ownership, to murder. Almost no schools, hospitals, roads or other services were present in FATA, and under the law, the government could only step in when the tribesman were accused of committing a crime against the state. The state could then impose collective punishment: hold tribesmen as hostage, raze homes or entire villages, or exile tribes. If you were victimized by the state in FATA you had no right to go to a proper court.

With no civilian state present–no free media, no courts, or police–Pakistan’s military and intelligence services were able to claim they were acting against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in FATA after 2001, without any legitimate oversight in place to check their narrative. Nearly 200,000 troops were stationed there, but the world’s most wanted jihadist leaders operated largely unchecked for more than a decade. Washington resorted to drone strikes, opting to kill the militants from the air, along with thousands of civilians who had no courts at which they could lodge complaints.

Locals paid the price for the war on terror. On one hand, the jihadists killed tribesmen, including more than one thousand tribal elders, and on the other hand, Islamabad held the tribes responsible for the failing to uproot them, using collective punishment—legal under the FCR—to send millions of locals into exile, or raze entire towns.

The impact on locals went largely unappreciated in Islamabad until 2018, when it looked like things were changing. That year, Pakistan finally amended the constitution to absorb FATA into the neighboring Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and extend full rights to locals. The amendment came about before Imran Khan assumed office, but many ethnic Pashtuns have continued to credit Imran Khan, himself a Pashtun, with being one of the few national political leaders in the country who seemed to understand the complexities of the war and its impact in FATA.

Reneging on promised reforms

On paper these were major developments, and Khan and his government have taken a number of steps towards extending the state’s presence in FATA.  Pakistan’s legal code—everything from the laws outlawing murder to those protecting freedom of the press—are now technically applicable in FATA.  Nearly thirty thousand tribal militiamen, for instance, have been integrated into the provincial police force.  Hospitals and health facilities in FATA are now under the care of provincial authorities, as are schools and utilities like electricity, water, and natural gas. The Pakistani government has promised hundreds of kilometers of new roads, along with funding for locals to rebuild tens of thousands of homes destroyed in the war.  And in 2019, FATA elected representatives to the provincial assembly for the first time ever, sending 21 lawmakers to Peshawar to legislate on their behalf.

But, with little progress and real investment of late, this all seems to have been lip service, with no substantial changes on the ground in FATA. There, the Pakistan’s military still calls the shots and operates as though the law were the same as it was before 2018.

This manifested quite clearly in May 2019, when two lawmakers from FATA led what should have been a routine protest to visit their own constituency in North Waziristan, to investigate locals’ claims of military abuses in a village. They were stopped at a military checkpoint, and soldiers allegedly opened fire, killing dozens of protesters.  Lawmakers Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir were arrested and charged with waging war on the state.  Under the old system, before the 2018 constitutional amendment, this would have meant they had no recourse to appeal in any court, but this time, they filed cases in Pakistani courts.  It took four months for them to be released, but there has yet to be any accountability for the alleged massacre Pakistani troops committed that May in North Waziristan.

Since then, as Dawar, Wazir, and others have quite rightly pointed out the USD $1 billion dollars a year Islamabad claims to be spending in FATA have yet to be delivered in any tangible fashion. In 2019, Islamabad pledged USD $540 million for FATA, but less than 10 percent of that money was actually spent on regional projects. And although collective punishment should no longer be legal in FATA, the Pakistani military continues to operate as if it has carte blanche to treat locals in the same manner as it did before the 2018 amendments.

Although collective punishment should no longer be legal in FATA, the Pakistani military continues to operate as if it has carte blanche to treat locals in the same manner as it did before the 2018 amendments.

Dawar and Wazir are not alone: today they are leaders in a grassroots movement among the Pashtun ethnic minority that lives along the Afghanistan border. The Pashtun Protection Movement, or PTM, calls for a dramatic change in how the country’s security services treat the ethnic minority, especially inside FATA.

Activists have held massive protests inside and outside FATA and have even received vocal support from leaders in Afghanistan, which has lost them sympathy from Khan and his ruling party over concerns regarding potential Pashtun separatism. Instead of pushing through the reforms and funding Khan had long advocated for, the ruling party spends most of its time today attempting to paint Dawar, Wazir, and the other activists from the PTM as foreign agents, a charge that, once leveled in Pakistani politics, is impossible to shake off. Dawar, along with other PTM activists, were arrested again this week in Pakistan.

Buried amidst the political bickering and the accusations of treason is the hard learned lesson of the war in the tribal areas: that you cannot root out terrorism without first granting locals basic human rights and making them stakeholders in the idea of a Pakistani nation. When it came time for Pakistan to root jihadists out of FATA, they had little to offer tribesmen, as they attempted to win their support, beyond the threat of collective punishment.  Although some Pashtuns have been integrated into the military and bureaucracy, such efforts are far from sufficient. If locals had the proper tools of a state at hand back in 2001, groups like the Taliban might not have found segments of tribal society ready to support them, preferring extremist courts and justice to absolute lawlessness.


Pakistan took a crucial first step when it granted basic rights to the millions of people living in FATA in 2018 but now appears to be losing sight of its goal.  Now that the legal framework for reform is in place, the tribal areas need substantial funding for schools, hospitals, roads, police stations, jails, courts and all the basic services a state provides. Imran Khan and his party enjoyed widespread popularity among locals in FATA, who once saw one of their own who was familiar with the tragedy that had befallen the tribal belt.  But since coming to power, Khan has largely left them behind.  It would be wise to heed the call of those masses again and see through the mainstreaming of FATA so it never again becomes a safe haven for global jihad.

Editor’s Note: In 2017, Umar Farooq received a grant from the Pulitzer Center, traveled to FATA and spoke to activists on the ground caught between terrorist activity, American drones, and Pakistan’s military. He reported on his findings for On Spec Podcast, which can be found hereFarooq’s findings underlie his perspective in this piece.


Click here to read this article in Urdu.

Image 1: FATA Committee via Flickr

Image 2: AFP via Getty Images

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