x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Pakistan plans ambitious boost for remote tribal areas

In a change of strategy in the remote regions bordering Afghanistan, Islamabad signals greater political participation for the area, along with increased development funds, gambling on the assumption that the Tehrik-i-Taliban and its militant allies are finally out of the picture.

ISLAMABAD // The Pakistani government has drawn up ambitious plans to revitalise civilian life in the remote tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, signalling a change of strategy in its 42-month war with militant insurgents.

A series of announcements from Islamabad late last week have laid out the agenda.

Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, said last Thursday that the next governor, or federal government representative, of the adjacent north-west province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa would probably be from the Fata, the official acronym for the seven tribal agencies. The governor of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa oversees the entire Fata.

A leading contender is Munir Orakzai, who represents the Orakzai tribal region in the National Assembly, the directly elected lower house of Pakistan's parliament.

Mr Orakzai leads a parliamentary group of 12 Fata representatives, whose votes are key to the government's slim majority in the National Assembly. The size of Mr Orakzai's parliamentary group, and its representation of the insurgency-torn Fata, has made it a formidable political force.

Mr Gilani, during the luncheon on Thursday he hosted for Mr Orakzai's group, also approved 30 million rupees (Dh1.28m) in development funds for each of the 12 members.

The implication was that the group had sought and been delegated the political authority to re-establish civilian governance in the Fata.

The initiative has international backing. On Friday, the World Bank and other lenders approved a $285m (Dh1.05 billion) grant to assist in the recovery of the Fata and areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa badly hit by the militant uprising.

Some 120 militant groups, operating under the umbrella of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), declared a jihad against the government after troops raided a militant seminary in Islamabad in July 2007.

By early 2009, the TTP controlled most of Fata, and had advanced into the Dir, Malakand and Shangla regions of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, threatening the provincial capital of Peshawar and drawing close to Islamabad. The TTP advance was reversed by a series of military counteroffensives, which have placed more than 120,000 soldiers in the Fata and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

The United States has been quick to step in with funding for development projects identified by Pakistan's military, currently the de facto government in the Fata.

A prominent example is the South Waziristan tribal region, where the headquarters of the TTP was located until late 2009.

Officials of the US agency for international development now frequently visit South Waziristan to monitor progress on a dam and road considered vital to the recovery of the region's economy. The US has spent $300m on projects in the Fata and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa since 2008.

Philip Crowley, the spokesman for the US State Department, said on Friday that the Obama administration was lobbying members of Congress to support a bill that would establish "reconstruction opportunity zones" in the Fata.

The zones in the Fata and militancy-hit areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa would seek to attract investors by offering unrestricted, duty-free access to the US market for the goods they would produce.

Similarly, the World Bank aid programme announced on Friday targets the restoration of the government schools network, and the estimated 660,000 Fata students forced out of education by the militants.

All that assumes that the Tehrik-i-Taliban and its militant allies have been routed, and no longer have the ability to disrupt daily life and economic activity in the Fata.

The onus would be on Pakistan's military to ensure security to tens of thousands of residents displaced by the counter-terrorist offensive.

At present, the Fata refugees prodded by the military into returning home have no reason to feel confident about their collective future.

The Pakistani military has carpet-bombed former strongholds of the TTP, yet its leaders survive and play a deadly game of cat and mouse with the military. The tribes, meanwhile, are arm-twisted into taking up arms against the insurgents.

The constant presence of US drones overhead adds to the sense of dread in an environment where farms and irrigation systems are in ruins, schools and health care facilities do not function, and the wheels of commerce have ground to a halt.

Day-to-day life is also typified by a huge military presence that seems designed to intimidate the residents to the extent that they fear the state even more than they fear the militants.

The civilian politicians, led by Mr Orakzai, would attempt to overcome the widespread scepticism prevalent among the Fata residents by preaching a message of hope - backed by Islamabad and the Pakistani military, and funded by the international community.

Parallel to security and development, the litmus test for the government would be the abolition of the current harsh form of governance, based on 19th century British colonial laws.

The government in 2009 proposed that the current Fata voter college, comprising hundreds of tribal elders, be replaced with party-based democracy.

It has also proposed that the Fata join the national mainstream, either through a merger with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, or by being granted the status of a province.

Those prospects have prompted the eight Fata members of parliament not allied with Mr Orakzai to join opposition political parties in anticipation of the next general election, scheduled for early 2013.

The novelty of the political process could prove inspirational for the residents of the Fata, who have long demanded it.

But the assumption that the TTP has been decisively beaten is yet to be proven.