FATA: Voice of the Unheard by Aminah Khan provides an invaluable indigenous perspective of Pakistan’s elusive tribal region which has captivated the imagination for decades. Following the tragic events of September 11th 2001, the area was plunged into chaos prompting the US administration to declare it as ‘one of the most dangerous places in the world.’
Located next to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Region (FATA) comprises seven administrative areas of Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram and North and South Waziristan.
During colonial rule, the British were never able to fully subdue this area and therefore gave it a de facto independent status. Following the departure of the British, successive Pakistani governments have signally failed to integrate the area within Pakistan which remains governed by outmoded laws enacted at the time of the Colonial Raj in 1901 including the Frontier Crimes Regulation of 1901. Throughout Pakistan’s 64 years of independence, countless opportunities have been missed to recast colonial instruments of control into frameworks which promote economic development, welfare and democracy.
Aminah Khan succinctly accounts for the rise of extremism in FATA as successive governments demonstrated a flagrant disregard for FATA:
“In 64 years of independence, the people of FATA have been subjected to outdated laws that deny them the same democratic political system, fundamental human rights, and economic opportunities prevailing in the rest of Pakistan. As a consequence of prolonged neglect and isolation from the State, rampant poverty and dismally low literacy rates define FATA. And with the inability of the government to acknowledge it as a significant and integral part of Pakistan that needs to be integrated, the tribal region has over a period of time, fallen into the hands of extremist groups.”
Her study provides a detailed analysis of the pakhtun way of life or ‘pakhtunwali’, explaining how the tribal way of life has endured through the centuries and remains the most powerful unifying force to this day among the pakhtuns across the country and neighbouring Afghanistan.
Using the path dependency model, Aminah Khan effectively illustrates how the events of the past have set Pakistan’s restive tribal areas on a certain course. The legacy of partition meant that the newly created Pakistan had to grapple with overwhelming problems and FATA continued to flounder at the margins of public discourse.
However, the author points out that the path dependency theory does not mean that area has to resign itself to its fate as brief but opportune moments for achieving major institutional reforms do emerge. Sadly, in the case of FATA such opportunities for reform were systematically squandered.
“According to the theory of path dependence, although abandoning an ‘established path’ is difficult, the institutional ‘arrangements’ and ‘established paths’ can be modified. Thus, it dos not mean that mistakes cannot be avoided in FATA; rather, there are always choices and alternatives that can be taken, but have never been attempted by any government in power. Let alone completely replacing the current system, no sincere effort has been made to modify and improve matters.”
The turmoil in Afghanistan had had profound implications for FATA whose population share a close cultural affinity with the Afghans:
“Consequently, keeping in mind the ethnic and historic linkages between the masses inhabiting the region, it is axiomatic that what happens across the border will undoubtedly have an impact on Pakistan’s tribal areas. This has been true before, and is similarly true now with US presence in Afghanistan since 2001 that has ensured that FATA and its people are directly affected and actively involved.”
Once again the path dependency approach can be applied in the FATA’s relationship with Afghanistan:
“If one applies the concept of path dependency, it makes perfect sense to see how the significance of the events, decisions and policies of the past weigh heavily on the present situation. The crises in Afghanistan and FATA are indeed a consequence of what happened two decades ago during the period spanning from 1979 to 1989.”
The author highlights the grave error of failing to cohere FATA with the rest of the country:
“It is difficult to comprehend why a need was not felt by those in power to focus on FATA’s governance and other challenges particularly after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. If policies had been devised then to integrate FATA into the mainstream, the FATA of today would have been very different. But its greatest tragedy has always been its blatant neglect.”
Through the path dependency model, the author proposes solutions for reform including allowing the political status of FATA to be determined by the people of FATA through a referendum, a plebiscite or any other means acceptable to the people; reforming FATA’s outdated system of administration; establishing a rehabilitation programme for those militants who agree to give up their arms; the abolition of the Frontier Crimes Regulation which has thwarted the development of democracy in the area. In addition she recommends the large-scale development of education, health and economic infrastructure, the use of existing radio stations and programmes currently operating in FATA to provide the people access to the rest of Pakistan.
Moreover, she asserts that the horrific depredations suffered by the people in war-torn FATA must get public acknowledgement:
“The people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA have suffered immense psychological distress due to the seemingly endless and indiscriminate violence witnessed since the US operation began in 2001. However, in order to achieve the fruits of the aforementioned reforms, the government will need to shown an unprecedented display of vision and political sagacity.”
To enhance one’s understanding of this much misunderstood area, Aminah Khan’s analysis provides an enlightening and enriching perspective.