FATA – world’s most complex region & Pashtun movement

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By Saira Bano Orakzai
The geographical conundrum of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas’ (FATA) role as the backdoor of Pakistan packs the emotional punch of ‘Illaqa-e-ghair’, meaning no-go area. Yet, this area is one of the world’s most complex regions; used three times in history to serve divergent interests. Firstly, Pakistan’s strategic interests since 1947; secondly, for Afghan Jihad against the Soviet Union; thirdly, by transnational actors and the Taliban.
How this territory has been used has played a significant role in portrayal of conflicts enveloping this region. The sense of otherness generated by being constitutionally separated from Pakistan created an unbridgeable gulf of misunderstanding between the state of Pakistan and people of FATA. In the midst of these misunderstandings, violation of human rights and war emerged the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) in February 2018, led by the Pashtun youth.

Naqeebullah Mehsud murdered in Karachi and the main accused SSP Rao Anwar is still at large.

The movement emerged as a result of non-stop enforced disappearances and extra judicial killings of tribal Pashtuns. Naqeebullah Mehsud’s killing in Karachi was the trigger point for this protest, and ethnic discrimination against tribal Pashtuns in other Pakistani provinces was its core grievance with the people and the state of Pakistan. The successful ten day sit in by the Pashtun youth in, created a new hope for the resolution of conflict in FATA. A new window to see and listen to the tales of tribal miseries and despairs, the inhuman conditions of IDPs, and the loss of hope felt by the returnees. As a consequence, Pashtuns around the world started showing support for the cause. Yet, new patterns started emerging in this movement, this time constructed through an ethnic map and a myth of an imaginary historical idea of Pashtun unity. Thereby, the plight of tribal people and conflict in FATA was Pashtunised.
The Pashtun movement stands for nonviolence and peace; however, nonviolence not only entails abstaining from violent actions but also from inflammatory discourse and rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, the open war of words against the Pakistan military and state by the PTM leader, Manzoor Pashteen caused the authorities in this country to turn to their old tricks. The PTM was declared an anti-state movement and FIRs were registered against key leaders. Section 144 was imposed in Peshawar to stop any future long march.

Soldiers of the Pakistan Army patrolling in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region.

In the midst of all this, who and what is to be blamed for derailing this successful Pashtun spring? The state, PTM leader’s statements or the stretching of PTM agenda from FATA issues to the broader agenda of Pashtun nationalism across and beyond the borders? The support of the Afghan president and its people in support of PTM mainstreamed Pashtun nationalism and side-tracked FATA and the resolution of this protracted conflict.
FATA faces a human and constitutional crisis. The people of the tribal areas face a crucial question at this point in history. Are they ready to let FATA be exploited for the fourth time in its history? From South Asian Muslim nationalism, Kashmir Jihad to Afghan Jihad, the imaginary Ummah and Islam of Taliban to Pashtun unity across and beyond borders – the Pashtuns of FATA have suffered as a consequence of all these ideologies and movements.
FATA needs a developmental and constitutional framework to rid itself of its miseries, not an ethnic profile that extends into the next century. PTM demands are constitutional and human rights centred, its leader’s voice is full of pain and depicts a genuine concern for the tribal Pashtuns. But the question remains: Are tribal people ready for another phase of unrest or insurgency? Still framed as terrorists, do they deserve to be called anti-Pakistani or traitors again, just because the PTM took on an ethnic dimension? Is it fair to drag them into another experiment? Is FATA a lab for national and regional actors to pursue respective interests?
FATA is not voiceless any longer. The time is ripe for the people of the tribal areas to make a clear choice; to struggle to restore rights, peace and accountability or to struggle against this country’s institutions and ideology, only to get entangled in a perpetual conflict. FATA is not a laboratory where any ethnic, national or regional entity can experiment and make the lives of people more miserable. All previous experiments in FATA have failed and ultimately damaged the identity of the tribal people within Pakistan and the fragile integrity of Pakistan.
FATA needs to emerge from the ethnic vortex. Instead of articulating and moving towards a solution for the problems of FATA, PTM has stretched its ideology to an unknown La La land. Thus, derailing an already fragile reforms process for FATA’s future. It is a high time that the government of Pakistan initiates the long overdue FATA reforms and peace process based on development, peacebuilding, accountability, constitutional rights, reforms, and addressing human rights concerns and abuses. No single person, movement or institution has the right to defame tribal people once again. FATA needs the support of all ethnic groups of Pakistan, not just one. The people of FATA require their own new modern leadership core that focuses on its interests, and voices its concerns to resolve this conflict without inflicting more harm to its people or dragging unnecessarily towards any fiction or insurgency.
(The writer is a Research Fellow at Harvard University; she can be contacted at sorakzai@fas.harvard.edu)