Former tribal areas and Pak
counter-terrorism policy

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By Rustam Shah Mohmand

Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and the area’s future has been the subject of debate since the US invaded Afghanistan in November 2001, following the September 11 attacks. Then President Musharraf agreed to the US demand for joining Washington’s ‘War on Terror’ partly to seek legitimacy for his government which until then had largely been ignored by the international community because it usurped power by removing an elected government through a military coup.

But following his consent to cooperate with the US effort in ‘punishing’ the Taliban, Musharraf made another terrible miscalculation. He ordered the induction of the military into the tribal areas for the first time in Pakistan’s history. It was a fatal error of judgement and one that would cast its ugly shadows over the area and its people for all time to come.

The tribal areas, until the induction of the military in late 2001, had their own system of administration steeped in the culture, norms and values of the area. The system ensured peace and tranquility. Collective responsibility for any crime committed in the area of any section of a tribe would ensure security for all inhabitants. The trial for any crime would be conducted under the ‘Frontier crimes regulation’ which would deliver its verdict in weeks. No one would escape punishment. No one could give false evidence because he/ she would have to face the wrath of the tribe. No individual, howsoever powerful, could stand up to the whole tribe. The crime rate was low and people lived happily– even in poverty. All that changed once the system was dismantled and a vacuum was created that would soon be filled up with elements hostile to the government.

Migration between Pakistan and Afghanistan

Partly because of the induction of the military and partly because of Pakistan aligning itself with the US policy to eliminate the Taliban movement, the people in the tribal areas became extremely resentful and deeply suspicious of Islamabad’s designs. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was the outcome of this hostility and has its roots in a wholly incorrect appraisal of a situation by a ruler who wanted to become a darling of the West.

Since then, the TTP has been a festering wound. When the TTP began to show signs of resistance, the government response was disproportionately severe causing a backlash. In reacting to the government crackdown, tens of thousands of tribesmen showed their opposition to government policy and the repression that was let loose. Thousands of people disappeared, whole villages got wiped out and houses were demolished– with no accountability whatsoever. This reign of terror continued for years. More than 150,000 people from North Waziristan alone migrated to Afghanistan. Afghanistan was considered more peaceful, where lives were not threatened. A large number went across from the Khyber agency or district to seek shelter.

All these atrocities provided fuel to the ideology of the TTP. People sympathized with their cause in view of what had happened to their lives, their properties and indeed their way of life.

As the years wore on however, rank and file tribesmen began to look for alternative livelihoods, safety and rehabilitation. The TTP’s appeal to incite people became less effective. TTP activists saw little chance of forcing the government to agree to their demands like the fate of missing persons, compensation for losses they suffered as a result of a no-holds-barred military operation and the withdrawal of the military from their area. In 2019, the government took another big decision that formally ended the age-old system of administration, incorporating the tribal areas into the province of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa or KP. Since then, people have been agitating against the abolition of the old system. They have not however taken a tough and uncompromising stance because the long years of military operations have considerably weakened their resolve and their ability to wage a robust struggle.

 Under the new system, police have been made operational. Courts have been established. The normal law of the land now prevails. Cases, both civil and criminal, are now decided under the Pakistan penal code and the criminal procedure code. People are frustrated because cases now take months and years to reach their conclusion– and appeals follow. They have to engage expensive lawyers and have to contend with rampant corruption. Precious farm-land, already scarce in the tribal areas, has been converted into setting up military camps, police lines, police stations, and residential complexes for hundreds of officers. Farm land and agricultural productivity has been a principal casualty. With unemployment, a rise in crime and land disputes, people of the area long for the ‘good old days.’ In this bleak scenario, the TTP too finds little support for its cause.

With Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, the safe havens are no longer available. They have to seek a settlement not entirely on their terms. And with this, the age of the TTP as a force to be reckoned with is almost over.

(Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.)