Will the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) be satisfied with the assurances extended by Prime Minister (PM) Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on his visit to North Waziristan Agency (NWA)? Let us first see what those assurances were and what they amount to. First and foremost, the PM termed the mainstreaming of FATA a must for its long term progress and prosperity. He asserted that the government was working to achieve the task in line with the aspirations of the tribal people. Abbasi inaugurated the newly constructed (by the army) Miramshah Market Complex and the Ghulam Khan Trade Terminal on the occasion. These projects are intended to compensate for the destruction of markets and shops of the local people during anti-terrorist military operations in the area. Abbasi repeated the homilies about bringing FATA on par with the more developed parts of the country and rehabilitating internally displaced persons. The tribesmen in return reminded the PM of the unfulfilled commitments the government made to the tribal people, including compensation to shopkeepers, traders and residents whose businesses and houses were destroyed in the Zarb-e-Azb military operation. Although the PM stated that the army had done its job, i.e. cleared the area of the malign presence of the terrorists, and it was time for the civilian administration to take up its responsibilities, this is precisely where there has been an unseemly lag. The year 2017 saw some assertion of intent to merge FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, mainstream and develop FATA, and even move the tribal areas into the 21st century. None of this has so far translated into reality on the ground, despite the federal cabinet having approved the extension of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and Islamabad High Court to FATA and the treasury having prepared a bill on FATA reforms. The bill was eventually not moved because of the opposition of two of the PML-N government’s allies, Mahmood Khan Achakzai of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party and Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the JUI-F, particularly the latter. Most observers criticised the government at the time for giving in to what appeared to be a vested electoral interest of the JUI-F to retain its clout in FATA. That is where the matter rests since, not to mention the failure to forge consensus to allocate two percent of the federal divisible pool to the development of FATA. It must be admitted of course that apart from the factor of vested interest, the government has also been hamstrung by the judicial woes of its leader Nawaz Sharif. Those distractions have taken focus off the FATA merger/mainstreaming project.
It is a positive that the PM went to NWA with the COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa and other senior civilian and military officials. Symbolically the visit underlined the wish and desire of the government to take over the administration of FATA after security has largely been restored by the military’s efforts. But if the road to making FATA part and parcel of the Pakistani state and society in conformity with the rest of the country was always going to be complicated and perhaps protracted given its burden of history and the complications of the transition from an antediluvian colonial construct to normality, intervening forces and events, as outlined above, have made the project even more difficult. The incumbent government is about to end its tenure, a caretaker government will take over to conduct the general elections with all their present uncertainties, and in the midst of the din and noise accompanying these developments, it is feared FATA’s day may be postponed once again. Barring some miracle, that seems to indicate that the people of FATA will have their patience tested further. The authorities should be cognizant of the fact that a largely tribal people’s movement, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, is rallying al over the country to highlight the grievances and complaints of the tribal people regarding enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and harassment and humiliations at checkposts in FATA and elsewhere in the country in the context of the ongoing anti-terrorist drive. The urgency of addressing these long standing grievances should not be lost on the outgoing or incoming elected government. FATA’s mainstreaming is already overdue. This should be pursued energetically and to the extent practicable even through, and certainly after, the present period of flux.