Fata: continuity or change? - Dr Maleeha Lodhi - Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Source : www.thenews.com.pk

The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.

An issue that should have been debated in parliament was the subject of an international conference – the status and future of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). Reforms to integrate the tribal areas into the state system have yet to figure in a national debate or receive sustained attention from the country’s media.

But important stakeholders came together to discuss this at a conference last week at Wilton Park, which is affiliated to Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They included six people from Fata, including two elected representatives, serving and former Pakistani officials having experience in the tribal areas, UN and other diplomats, as well as Pakistani scholars and NGO activists. The participants engaged in a rich discussion, as did spokesmen of the country’s major political parties, ably represented by Senators Mohammed Ishaq Dar, Raza Rabbani and Afrasiab Khattak.

The three-day conference on “Advancing policy implementation in Fata” ranged over security issues, Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, effectiveness of state governance, economic development, the international community’s role in stabilisation and most importantly, building a national consensus on Fata.

“Mainstreaming” dominated the discussions: what did it mean, how Fata’s residents envisioned this, what were their aspirations, and how reforms could be undertaken. There was no dispute over “economic mainstreaming,” with Fata parliamentarians calling for fast-track development, identifying the services they wanted and urging consultation with the people to determine their priorities.

But opinion divided sharply on political, legal and administrative reforms. Apart from the divergence between upholders of the status quo and those calling for change, there was disagreement among the “reformers” on the pace, scope and modalities of integrating Fata. Some proposed an incremental or gradualist approach to political assimilation, emphasising the imperative to create an enabling environment for reforms. Others pressed for bold steps predicated on the view that the status quo was no longer tenable as the tribal, legal and administrative structures had already been transformed by the impact of geo-strategic and economic developments.

Fata’s present state of crisis offered an opportunity for reform. But everyone concurred that this needed a national dialogue to build consensus for constitutional change. Barring some discordant voices, there was agreement that mainstreaming had to begin by giving Fata a distinct juridical and constitutional personality. This was the only viable way to ensure the state’s effectiveness and responsiveness to the needs of Fata’s people.

Many of these points are supported by the findings of an opinion poll conducted in the tribal areas that was shared at the conference. Carried out earlier this year by the Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme (CAMP), this found that on the question of becoming a political unit of Pakistan, a third of the respondents wanted full integration into Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, while around a quarter wanted a separate province. Only 7.9 per cent wanted things to remain as they are.

The survey data showed a widespread yearning for change from the longstanding administrative and regulatory system to another, but yet to be defined, arrangement consistent with the governance available to other Pakistanis.

A significant shift in opinion related to support for military operations against militants. This went up substantially in 2010: 66.8 per cent compared to only 16.8 per cent in 2009.

The implementation of reforms for Fata announced by the government in August 2009 was hotly debated. Few disagreed on the need to extend the Political Parties Act, amend the Frontier Crimes Regulation (two elements of the reform package) and introduce local government institutions, the confluence of which could provide an impetus for change from within.

One speaker proposed securing the “low-hanging fruit” by first piloting these reforms in Pata (Provincially Administered Tribal Areas), integrating them with KP and merging the Frontier Regions into KP. Others called for a resolution in parliament to endorse the Fata reform package and help its expeditious enforcement. The president has yet to sign off on the package, having made the announcement without adequate preparation, consultation or building an internal consensus.

Discussion of the FCR often produced as much heat as light. Sceptics of change were challenged by others who pointed to the need to demythologise the regulations’ presumed past benefits to justify continuance of the status quo. They described this as a colonial vestige that was inconsistent with the changes proceeding apace, as indeed modern statehood. The FCR’s old premise that the tribes could provide for their own security no longer held. Resistance to reform, said one participant, came not so much from the tribes but from officials who prefer to rule Fata like a “fiefdom.”

This directed the debate to a consideration of the history of official treatment of Fata as a “strategic space,” rather than as a region where people have rights. A former military official put it starkly: for too long Fata had either been a “backyard” or a “playground” for the Great Game. The time had now come when primacy had to be given to the people of Fata and a “sure-footed evolutionary” approach evolved to assimilate it with the rest of the country.

From Fata’s own representatives came a litany of complaints about not being consulted on decisions affecting their future. The country’s political leaders had never even bothered to visit their region. “A century of neglect” is how a speaker described Fata’s isolation and marginalisation. This narrative echoed through the proceedings, underscoring the need to establish a sustained framework to ascertain and accommodate the sentiments of the residents.

The emphasis Fata representatives placed on the need for the state to provide education, including for girls, was endorsed by all present. Education was identified as the priority for development spending. When confronted with the issue of female participation, the parliamentarians themselves called for reserved seats for women from Fata in the National Assembly and Senate.

Attention was also focused on the youth bulge and the demographic shifts taking place in Fata and the need to address this by rapid development projects and generating job opportunities. But avenues for youth voices were absent in Fata.

There was considerable agreement that Fata’s security problems could not be solved in isolation to developments in Afghanistan. But a consensus also emerged that while the security challenge was the most pressing, addressing development issues and Fata’s mainstreaming should not be sequential to the restoration of law and order. Security and development needed to be tackled simultaneously through an integrated policy approach so that the two were mutually reinforcing.

For all the disagreements on the content and scope of reforms, Pakistani participants had a uniform response to a slew of questions about when and whether their authorities would launch a military operation in North Waziristan. The unified position was that this was a sovereign issue which should not be the subject of an international conference. Nor should the issue of Fata reforms be “internationalised.” These must be indigenous, based on consultation with the people of the region, politically-owned and publicly supported.

Speakers from Pakistan also closed ranks on US drone-launched missile attacks in the tribal areas. In addition to their legal and moral dimensions and “sovereign” implications for Pakistan, these were counter-functional because they provoked hostility from the tribes, inflamed anti-American sentiment, radicalised more people than the terrorists they eliminated and resulted in unacceptable collateral damage, despite claims to the country.

The CAMP survey’s findings amply reflect this sentiment in the tribal areas. Close to 60 per cent of the respondents believed these attacks are “never justified,” with variation across the agencies – 99.3 per cent holding this opinion in North Waziristan.

The conference deliberations helped to set out policy options and offer varying approaches to reforms. But only a national debate can turn these into concrete and workable solutions with the consent of the people of Fata. Finding ways to ascertain their wishes and translating them into enforceable policy should be the responsibility of Pakistan’s leaders not the donor community.

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