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Will More Representation Solve Pakistan’s Pashtun Problem?

14 May 2019 Gandhara - RFE/RL

In a movement of rare unity, Pakistan’s political parties have united to grant increased representation to part of the western Pashtun homeland that once served as the main theater for the country’s war on terrorism.

On May 13, the National Assembly or lower house of the Pakistani Parliament unanimously adopted the 26th constitutional amendment. It will become part of Pakistani supreme law after being adopted by the Senate, the upper house of the parliament, and signed by the president. The amendment will increase representation for the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

FATA, an arc-like mountainous territory along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan, was merged into the adjoining northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last year. The amendment increases the provincial assembly seats for former FATA from 16 to 24 while retaining its current 12 seats in the National Assembly.

The region comprising the districts of Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan, South Waziristan, and other small areas served as the main theater for Pakistan’s war on terrorism. The Taliban and allied militants moved there following the demise of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001.

Still recovering from years of Taliban attacks and the military’s counterterror sweeps, the region’s predominantly Pashtun residents have paid a high price with tens of thousands of fatalities, large-scale displacement, and near complete obliteration of their economy.

While the increased representation is widely welcomed, key questions about the future of this region persist. Islamabad faces a long road in stabilizing the former FATA due to the slow pace of implementing governance and administrative reforms after the merger. Addressing grievances rooted in the region’s role in the war on terrorism has proved daunting. The region’s history in the various phases of war in Afghanistan further complicates integration.

Islamabad is struggling to mobilize resources for the region plagued with poverty, destruction, and neglect amid an economic spiral.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan says Islamabad is aware that a sense of deprivation in FATA is dangerous for his country.

“No one should feel that Pakistan does not own them [and] that they do not have a stake in Pakistan," he told lawmakers on May 13.

Khan acknowledged that his administration faces challenges in convincing Pakistan’s three provinces to allocate 3 percent of their share in national resources with former FATA.

"Their [the provinces'] funds are not at the level that they should be in the [current] bad economic situation,” he said, adding that it is necessary to share resources because of the destruction in the former FATA, which he said Khyber Pakhtunkhwa cannot handle with its meager development funds.

“We need development in FATA because the livelihoods and houses of its residents were destroyed,” Khan said. “But to create employment and develop the infrastructure there, we will need all provinces to chip in.”

But Khan’s request attracted sharp rebukes. Sanaullah Baloch, an opposition MP in the southwestern province of Balochistan, questioned the rationale.

“Provinces are financially suffering. Balochistan and FATA deserve full support,” he wrote on Twitter while opposing a cut in his provinces share.

“Islamabad is responsible for backwardness in FATA,” he added. Islamabad must cutdown its expenses and provide additional support to FATA and Balochistan.”

Like FATA, many of Pakistan’s peripheries are struggling with chronic poverty, little or no infrastructure, and worsening human development indicators. Violence and insurgencies such as the nearly two-decade separatist insurrection by Baluch nationalists pose additional problems.

A year after FATA was merged into Pakistan’s administrative and legal mainstream, Islamabad’s promised reforms are moving at a snail’s pace. While Pakistani courts have struck down some discriminatory laws, the judiciary has yet to establish a foothold in the region. Courts established for the region’s more than 6 million residents are now working outside their allocated districts. A force capable of policing the region has yet to take shape.

Ghulam Qadir Khan Daur, an author and former bureaucrat, says FATA residents are losing faith in Islamabad’s promises of returning peace and reforming and developing their homeland. “There are no visible development activities in the tribal districts,” he wrote in Pakistan’s daily Dawn. “Targeted killings have yet to be completely eliminated. Aman (peace) committees and militants who surrendered are seen as the return of militancy.”

Most of the former FATA’s problems are political and directly linked to Pakistan’s most powerful state institution, the military. With more than 200,000 troops on the ground, the grievances of residents are related to the military’s presence, performance, and both real and perceived policies.

For more than a year, the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM), a civil rights group, has campaigned for the fundamental human rights of Pakistan’s estimated 35 million Pashtuns. Emerging from FATA, the non-violent protests have taken Pakistan by storm.

The PTM’s young leaders and activists have pressured Islamabad to probe and end extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and harassment by security forces. The movement has also called for clearing landmines from former frontlines across FATA.

The PTM’s vocal criticism, however, has put it in the crosshairs of the military. It has imposed blanket censorship on the movement’s media coverage and has accused its leadership of being funded by foreign spy services. Supporters have faced large-scale arrests and court cases, and many have lost their jobs and livelihoods because of their activism.

"The way they are playing into the hands of others, their time is up," Pakistani military spokesman Asif Ghafoor told journalists on April 29.

The movement rejects such accusations. "These accusations are being leveled against us only because we are demanding accountability," lawmaker Mohsin Dawar, a PTM leader, recently told the parliament. Dawar first tabled the bill that is now being converted into the 26th constitutional amendment.

Daur knows the intricacies of FATA, where he was born and worked as a civilian administrator. He says the PTM has attracted unprecedented support because residents fear the return of militant violence. But the movement’s confrontation with the military has created a bind.

“The youth does not want whatever is handed to them; they are fed up with their shattered lives,” he recently wrote. “They want everything that is rightfully theirs, or nothing.”

Pakistani military’s security interests in the region run deep and are related to its involvement during the war in neighboring Afghanistan since the late 1970s.

But the military’s championing of Afghan anticommunist rebels in the 1980s, support for the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s, and its operations against the Pakistani Taliban in more recent years have prompted suffering for more than a dozen Pashtun tribes straddling Afghanistan and former FATA across the Durand Line. Successive Afghan governments have refused to recognize the colonial-era border that divided the Pashtuns into Afghanistan and British India in 1893.

Islamabad’s ongoing fencing of the Durand Line is apparently aimed at preventing militant attacks from Afghanistan. But fencing the border amid troubled relations with Kabul and sporadic cross-border attacks pose mounting risks. Fencing has limited or even eliminated contact between members of the same Pashtun clans living in the two countries. More significantly, it has threatened or eliminated cross-border trade, a major livelihood in the former FATA.

But targeted assassinations and bomb attacks have already returned to parts of FATA. “People ask how these terrorists are able to enter and leave without a trace,” Daur notes. “The light at the end of the tunnel appears to be fading.”

Farhatullah Babar, an outspoken leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, agrees. He says that while increasing the provincial legislature seats is a good omen for FATA, the development has already resulted in postponing planned elections for the provincial assembly in July.

“It means no change in FATA regulation so no civilian control and no real power transfer,” he wrote on Twitter. “It means no demilitarization.”

Babar says Pakistan’s civilian authorities now must make sure to hold elections on time within the next six months.

“Merely promising more seats without actual elections [equals] courting disaster,” he wrote.

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