The tribal areas and frontier regions were created by the British Empire to divide Pashtun Tribes and keep a buffer with the Russians.  Post 1947, they continue to be governed by a colonial legacy of Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), which allow considerable power to local chieftains willing to meet the needs of the government. Today, even this black law is non-existent. The Maliks are either eliminated or in awe of strong militant groups. Political agents (sometimes corrupt) are ineffective. Administration is non-existent. Pakistan failed to evolve a system through a reformed social contract with the people of the area. The armed forces of Pakistan remain the only arm to curb lawlessness and restore limited normalcy. This limited success is subject to civilian capacity building around the empowerment of the people. Neglect incapacity building remains the missing link.

FATA comprises Agencies and Frontier Regions (FRs). The FRs act as a buffer with settled areas. Agencies are controlled through political agents appointed by the federal government. Deputy Commissioners of the adjoining districts represent the governor in administering FRs. Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) are subdivisions designated in the Article 246(b) of the Constitution of Pakistan. The fact that these areas have remained restive indicates poor governance and lack of reforms.

Traditionally, the most restive area is NWS. Mirza Ali Khan known as the Faqir of Ipi, from NWS conducted his guerrilla warfare against the British throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The creation of Pakistan in 1947 significantly diluted the movement till the surrender of his Commander, Mehar Dil in 1954. NWS became a major base of operations during the Soviet occupation.

The influx of CIA-ISI sponsored mujahedeen and foreigners against USSR changed the fragile balance. The control of the area passed from the Maliks to local and foreign militant commanders. The region transformed from an imperial buffer to a launching area for operations against USSR. After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, the condition lured most foreign militants into Afghanistan who made their sanctuaries around Kandahar, Kunar, Nangarhar, Paktia, Khost and Paktika in Afghanistan. These sanctuaries were also used by Pakistani militant groups and sectarian outfits. In an ironic twist, these bases are now used against Pakistan.

In the interim, OBL used his financial clout to gel all such groups around his organisation. NWS continued to be the base strengthened through local customs called Rawaj. Foreign militants comprising Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens and Uighur Turkmen created a strong connection in NWS through money, marriages and elimination of local Maliks. They gradually seized control of the area after the US-ISAF occupation of Afghanistan.

Pakistan got sucked into this quagmire for multiple reasons.

Pakistan never made efforts towards the socio-economic development of the area. Better education, health facilities, agriculture, communication infrastructure, mining, industrialisation and tourism would have had the indirect effect of empowerment. The only doors left open for modernisation were exclusive to the rich; through smuggling, drug trafficking, gun running and migration to urban centres. A criminal culture that justified wrong also justified the mind-set. The issue was exasperated by politics that ignored people. People who had shown love for the country in repeated surveys were left at the mercy of the notorious.

This imbalance contributed to Pakistan’s inability to block the entry of foreign militants once US-ISAF forces pushed them South. Also, during this crucial period, Pakistan’s reaction to the Indian bluff through redeployments on the eastern borders may have made it easier for many fugitives to slip in. Pakistan’s Brigade at Tall managed to arrest most fugitives from Tora Bora, but much was left undone.

All efforts by the government and army to get foreigners registered with local authorities met stiff resistance. Cognisant of its international obligations, the government of Pakistan held parleys and signed over 18 agreements with Tribal Maliks, ulema and local militant groups to evict or register foreign militants. Each agreement was flouted the moment it was signed. Truces were of mutual convenience. Desperate, the government decided to enforce its writ through flag marches by the Army and Frontier Corps. The first flag march in 2004 was greeted with heavy fire from local and foreign militants. Limited military actions and negotiations continued in tandem till 2008. The present situation is that foreign militants and their proxies control the area, live in highly fortified rented compounds and hold the local economy hostage. Warlords are paid for their services in dollars.

But there is progress. Slowly but surely, the military has been at work despite massive international and domestic propaganda. Except NWS, all agencies and FRs are under control. Militants from SWS, Orakzai, Kurram and Tirah are almost flushed out. This manoeuvre effectively seals and isolates NWS. IDPs cannot be resettled in SWS till NWS is not sanitised. The army could have cleared NWS immediately after Swat and SWS Operations. There could be analysis and debate on why it was not done. Locals led by new and young Maliks are standing up against militants and prepared to play a leading role as stakeholders in the system.

The flow of accurate information has increased facilitating targeting. Strikes on three Uzbek Hotels in Mir Ali and five fortified compounds in Machi could never have been possible without local assistance. An attempt to gel militants under the leadership of Swati Talibans hiding in Kunar has backfired. Cracks are widening each day. The only hurdles left are foreigners, sectarian outfits and their hosts.

These militants have spread into many urban areas of Pakistan and it is here that their bloodiest backlash could come. A measure of it was seen on 4th June when two officers were killed in Rawalpindi in a suicide attack. Time is against delay and complacency. A comprehensive counter terrorism policy has to be approved quickly. The LEAs have to soften and eliminate isolated and cornered militants with precision and least collateral damage. As militancy gets weaker, more people will rally behind the LEAs to telling effect.

It will take time and missionary zeal to rebuild infrastructure, modernise agriculture and livestock, explore rare minerals and set up a value addition industry. Indeed, FATA has the potential to become the richest region of Pakistan, but only if all of us decide to become only Pakistanis before all else. This is where the federal government will be required to lead the passion. The military’s capacity in national development will also be tested.

The man who was overseeing this for ten years, smiled and remarked, ‘Who says we are fighting America’s War?’ I retorted, ‘Your major test will be capacity building of the civilian institutions. Then you win the war.’

The writer is a retired officer of Pakistan Army and a political economist and a television anchorperson.