III. Mobilising FATA’s Civil Society
Given the constraints on freedoms of expression and association, lack of legal recourse, widespread insecurity and the military’s intrusive monitoring, FATA’s civil society has long struggled to articulate public demands.
Maliks, or tribal elders, also obstruct political and social mobilisation. Appointed by the federal bureaucracy, and often enjoying only limited local support, they are a main beneficiary of FATA’s status quo, including from the flourishing black economy.
But FATA’s old guard – the civil and military bureaucracies and the maliks – now face their biggest challenge from a new generation that wants change and can mobilise society, as demonstrated by growing support for the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement.
This group has its origins in the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement, set up in 2016 by a student leader, Manzoor Ahmed, from South Waziristan.
That movement initially protested against both the persecution of Ahmed’s Mehsud tribe, which had borne the brunt of collective punishment (top TTP leaders were Mehsuds), and against discrimination suffered by Pashtuns more broadly, particularly those from FATA, at the hands of state institutions and businesses. Ethnic profiling of Pashtuns extends beyond FATA. In February 2018, for example, the Punjab government issued a notification “asking the population to keep an eye on suspicious individuals who look like Pashtuns or are from [FATA], and to report any suspicious activity by them”.
Conflict-induced displacement has played a role in mobilising FATA civil society.
A turning point for FATA’s youth activism was the Karachi police’s 13 January 2018 extrajudicial killing of Naqeebullah Mehsud, a North Waziristan resident and aspiring model on social media with no links to terrorism.
The killing sparked national outrage. Thousands of Pashtuns participated in an Islamabad sit-in led by the Mehsud Tahafuz Movement, demanding accountability for Naqeebullah’s murder, and a halt to extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, curfews, locals’ humiliation at checkposts and restrictions on freedoms, as well as an end to militancy in FATA. They highlighted the destruction of civilian properties during and after military operations, the hardships faced by returning IDPs, and deaths caused by unexploded ordnance and mines. Given the fervent response among Pashtuns nationwide, the movement changed its name to the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, with Ahmed adopting the moniker “Pashteen”. Since then, it has held massive rallies, despite police raids and arrests of activists, in all four provincial capitals and in hard-hit Pashtun-majority areas such as Swat.
The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement does not focus directly on FATA reform. “There are other organisations and forums for FATA reforms, but what the movement is raising no one was discussing”, said Mohsin Dawar, then a top movement leader and Peshawar high court lawyer.
“Enforced disappearances are not just a FATA issue, they are also an issue in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and people are getting picked up in Swat and Bannu”. Yet by highlighting the military’s role in the tribal belt and demanding an end to its use of jihadist proxies, the movement is pointing to the major impediments to stabilising those areas. As a common slogan at the movement’s demonstrations goes: “Yeh kesi dehshatgardi hai, gis key pechey wardi hai (roughly translated, “What kind of terrorism is this, that has the man in uniform behind it?”). “All this generation has seen is war”, said Pashteen. “Unlike the maliks, it is not afraid to confront military officials”.
The movement’s leadership comprises educated urban youth from across the country and young professionals from FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Even before it gathered steam, FATA’s youth groups, including women, were demanding the region’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with full political and constitutional rights, and challenging the authority and legitimacy of maliks perceived to be “pro-Frontier Crimes Regulation”. Conflict-induced displacement has played a role in mobilising FATA civil society. Some displaced FATA youth formed or joined community-based organisations. Women IDPs participated more in the socio-economic mainstream, obtaining national identity cards and opening bank accounts for the first time to benefit from assistance packages. Many now demand access to health care, skills training and credit so that they can earn independent livelihoods and participate in local public life.
The Pashtun Tahafuz Movement’s core leadership of around twenty is all men, but Pashtun women participate in its rallies in large numbers. A Pashtun woman activist said, “when the elders said that the movement is dishonouring the [Pashtun] culture by having women at the rallies, we said, ‘what about the dishonour to the culture by the [Pakistani] Taliban and the military?’” Another prominent (male) activist said, “what about women who are humiliated at checkposts and thrown out of their homes – was that not dishonourable?”
A movement rally in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Swat district was well attended by women because, according to Sana Ejaz, an activist who canvassed women to participate, “so many of them have sons and husbands missing. [There are many] conflict-affected households, and that had a big impact on women”. In a widely circulated speech during a March rally in Balochistan, a woman activist implored women to demand their rights and “and rise shoulder to shoulder with the men. Only then will this national movement go forward”.
Technology, too, plays an important role. “In the old days, a person would write about a convention and activists would photocopy it and pass it around”, said movement leader Dawar. “Now, everyone is connected. Without social media, the movement would have been nothing”.
With videos of speeches circulating on social media, amid a military-imposed media blackout of movement coverage, one affiliated activist described the rallies as “alternative reporting, from the stage”.
Military leaders have accused the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement of being backed by anti-Pakistan countries and forces, an implicit reference to India.
The military has responded with a mix of coercion and attempts at compromise, including allowing use of the national identity card for travel to and within FATA, as opposed to the Watan card (identification cards for IDP compensation), as was previously required; closing some checkposts, removing some unexploded ordnance and demining some areas; releasing around 300 detainees from internment centres; and engaging in dialogue with the protesters.
The movement’s leaders and activists believe that the military expected that the release of a few hundred detainees would placate it. But accounts of mistreatment of those released have fuelled demands for an end to enforced disappearances.
With the movement gaining strength, military leaders have accused it of being backed by anti-Pakistan countries and forces, an implicit reference to India. In April, army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa said the military would not allow “engineered protests” to reverse the gains of its counter-terrorism operations in FATA and cautioned the nation not to forget the sacrifices of “real heroes”.
A Peshawar rally the same month, widely believed to be state-backed, condemned the movement and praised the armed forces for protecting the country, amid chants of “Pakistan Zindabad” (long live Pakistan).
One Pashtun political party, the Balochistan-based Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, has strongly backed Pashteen’s movement. But the movement has created a dilemma for it and other nationalist Pashtun parties, including the Awami National Party. Large numbers of grassroots party cadres are also Pashtun Tahafuz Movement activists. “Political parties have gone into the background, and [non-party] people taken the lead”, said a senior Awami National Party leader and former senator.
Yet all major political parties, Pashtun or otherwise, and even the military, have had to respond to a galvanised civil society’s demands for constitutional protections and freedoms in FATA.
- Reforming FATA
FATA reform was part of the National Action Plan against terrorism formulated after the December 2014 Peshawar Army Public School attack, an implicit recognition that FATA’s tenuous governance had contributed in large part to the spread of militancy. This effort built on an existing consensus among almost all major parties on the importance of extending the state’s reach and dispelling local grievances in FATA.
In November 2015, then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif established a committee on FATA reforms, chaired by his foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz. The committee produced a report in August 2016, recommending “a gradual and phased approach”, including abolishing the Frontier Crimes Regulations and merging FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The five-year transitional period foresaw the return of IDPs, reconstruction, socio-economic development and local elections as precursors to legal and constitutional reforms, while retaining Article 247 of the constitution. As with past reforms, the military resisted even this modest proposal, refusing to cede control over this strategic territory.
Pressure from FATA’s civil society, in large part propelled by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement’s grassroots mobilisation, produced momentum for more comprehensive reform, persuading even the military that it would have to loosen its hold on the tribal areas. According to a senior Pashtun nationalist, “without any doubt the movement’s pressure has been the most decisive factor in forcing all players to stop blocking reforms … the security establishment, which was initially hesitant about the merger of FATA in Pakhtunkhwa, reconsidered in view of the ever-deepening alienation among the Pashtun youth of FATA. It was afraid of the backlash to the flawed state policies”.
In late May 2018, the week they were ending their five-year term, the national and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies passed the 31st amendment that repealed Article 247 of the constitution and merged FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Article 247’s repeal allows those assemblies to legislate for FATA and extends the jurisdiction of the higher judiciary to the tribal areas, with any new government action, law or regulation reviewable by the Peshawar high court and Supreme Court. Elections in the tribal agencies (renamed “districts”) for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa legislature are to be held within a year of the 25 July general elections. Local polls are planned for October this year.
FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa appears now to be irreversible; no party is likely to propose an amendment to turn back the clock because of the broad-based support the reform enjoys. But the region’s incorporation into the political, legal and constitutional mainstream has been adversely affected by the final presidential ordinance promulgated under Article 247, replacing the Frontier Crimes Regulations with an equally draconian FATA Interim Governance Regulation. The differences between the two are cosmetic. The senior-most federal bureaucrat in a tribal district (formerly tribal agency) is now called a deputy commissioner, rather than a political agent, but retains many of the same powers, including the authority to arrest men between the ages of sixteen and 65 who “are acting in a hostile, subversive or offensive manner towards the State or any person residing within the settled area of Pakistan”.
Delaying FATA’s full political, administrative and legal integration into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will estrange many inhabitants of the tribal areas.
The government has started building judicial complexes – consisting of courthouses, bar councils and other facilities – in all tribal agencies. The Peshawar high court has set a requirement for 52 judicial officers to be deployed in FATA within six months of its merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Yet, according to the interim regulation, federal bureaucrats and deputy and assistant commissioners will continue to perform judicial functions, a provision which violates the constitution. Assistant commissioners will rely on their handpicked “council of elders” to adjudicate civil cases, on the basis of rewaj (customary law), a patriarchal set of rules that affirms group, not individual, rights. Customary law can even justify violence against women, such as in Kurram, where the codified rewaj permits the sale or exchange of women to settle disputes. Assistant commissioners designated as “judges” will also try criminal cases, with the authority to detain or pardon alleged offenders.
Political parties, backed by civil society, had thwarted an earlier bid in parliament (proposed by the Aziz-led FATA Reforms Committee) to replace the Frontier Crimes Regulations with a Rewaj Act.
Mohammad Ali Wazir, a Pashtun Tahafuz Movement leader whose immediate family members were killed for opposing the TTP, said: “There are so many different power centres – maliks, political agents, militants, army, Frontier Corps, FCR, rewaj, each with a different set of rules – and all we get is chaos. Give us one system. Don’t have us running around like wild cats”. The onus of repealing the Interim Governance Regulation is now on the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf-led Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly since the president, after signing the 31st amendment, no longer has jurisdiction over FATA.
Since Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s 2017 police act now applies to the tribal belt, the federal government should disband the tribal levies. Tehreek-i-Insaf’s provincial government should incorporate their personnel into the provincial police force, and also provide the police with the resources it needs for its additional responsibilities in the tribal belt. FATA residents, who will now vote for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly, will hold the provincial government accountable if they do not see improvements in the security of the tribal areas. Indeed, delaying FATA’s full political, administrative and legal integration into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will further estrange many inhabitants of the tribal areas, who have little patience left after decades of living as second-class citizens in Pakistan. Failing to respond to FATA’s civil society demands for full citizenship rights and protections will erode the authority of the national and provincial governments and could allow militants to profit from the resultant alienation.
- Moving Forward
The 31st amendment is a welcome step forward. In the words of one major daily newspaper’s editorial: “History has been made. FATA is no more … the people of the region now have formal access to the constitutional and political rights that are legally available to all citizens of Pakistan”.
Yet much more needs to be done to end FATA’s political and economic isolation, reverse policies that have eroded rights and livelihoods, and prevent militants from taking advantage of disaffection.
So long as the military maintains arbitrary restrictions on movement, elected representatives, journalists and civil society activists will be unable to assess the implementation of reforms.
The military and civil bureaucracies still seem unwilling to allow such access or even to let locals assemble freely, and instead appear bent on suppressing peaceful dissent. In early June, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement leader Mohsin Dawar was banned from visiting his hometown in North Waziristan for three months on the grounds that he was “acting in a manner prejudicial to public peace and tranquillity”. But the protesters at his rally had been peaceful, unlike the pro-state militia that attacked movement activists in South Waziristan’s administrative headquarters, Wana, killing two and injuring 25. Rather than discipline the militiamen, the state temporarily banned peaceful protests.
Superior court jurisdiction will likely check FATA’s unaccountable civil bureaucracy, whose actions can now be challenged before independent judges rather than executive tribunals. But the judiciary will have to prove it is capable of upholding the constitutional rights and protections now extended to FATA’s residents, including freedoms of movement, speech and association.
Moreover, the federal and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments should take urgent steps to develop the region, which has the worst socio-economic indicators in the country, and has been devastated by conflict. There is a major plan for multi-year funding of FATA’s development but no guarantee that the money will arrive. The incoming National Financial Commission should quickly reach agreement on such funding.
Islamabad and Peshawar should also consult FATA stakeholders on reconstruction, rehabilitation and development, and ensure the availability of fiscal resources.
The previous federal and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governments fulfilled a major commitment to ending FATA’s constitutional limbo. Their successors cannot blame insecurity or seek other justifications for delaying FATA’s integration into the mainstream. To be sure, the task will require resources, further reforms and, above all, stamina in the face of bureaucratic resistance. Though the principle of integration is now firmly established, the civil and military bureaucracies and the tribal elite will likely seek only partial reforms that retain the current governing structure. Yet, as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement’s popularity demonstrates, those bureaucracies’ authority in FATA has waned. With public expectations raised by the merger and the repeal of Article 247, stalling would likely provoke significant backlash.
If the civil bureaucracy is averse to losing the benefits of the status quo, the military is averse to loosening its grip upon a territory that it still uses to promote what it perceives as Pakistan’s national security interests, including through support for the Afghan Taliban and local militant proxies. But opportunities for breaking its hold are greater today than at any time before, given the 31st amendment, and civil society’s demands for an end to conflict in the tribal belt, which have broad backing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and indeed countrywide.
If the Tehreek-i-Insaf government prevaricates, it will squander a critical opportunity to strengthen its own standing in FATA and to stabilise the conflict-prone region.
(The Crisis Group is a Brussels based international think tank.)