NationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 11

Opportunity zones in KP’s tribal regions

Despite one and a half years after the merger of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, the much-talked about process of multipronged development could not start there, forcing people to point out the shortcomings of the government’s uplift strategy.

Economic development is one of the key aspects of the entire process of progress and other dimensions of development are largely dependent upon it. Any meaningful development in the former FATA could only be brought about, if the region is not developed economically. This economic development must come from within not from without. However, the outside support is crucial for enabling the tribal areas of KP to make development from within. In this regard, industrial development is quite important. The tribal regions of Pakistan on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border could not develop industries for a host of reasons. All efforts from the government over the decades and some investors from the region failed to establish any worthwhile industries there. It seems that the government of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has come to understand the importance of industries for the economic development of the tribal regions and has, therefore, decided to request the United States to revive its former plan of establishing elaborate industrial infrastructure in the former FATA.

Acknowledging the grave mistake of the past governments, the ruling party, has decided to request the United States to revive the idea of establishing Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) in Pakistan-Afghanistan bordering areas. A couple of months back, Adviser to Prime Minister on Commerce, Textile, Industry and Production and Investment, Abdul Razak Dawood, in an exclusive interview with a national daily had revealed that Prime Minister Imran Khan government was trying to convince Washington to restore the idea of ROZs as it was critically important for the socioeconomic development of the bordering tribal regions. The proposed RoZs were indeed an important project offered by the US and had a huge potential for bringing about a sea socioeconomic change in the remote and impoverished region. However, due to complete mismanagement by Pakistani policymakers, whoever they were, and the bureaucracy, the project had to be abandoned by Washington. The ultimate losers have been the residents of the border regions and the country. The conflict and crisis prevailing in the border regions of Pakistan along Afghanistan have had continuous outpouring to the adjoining KP province and the rest of Pakistan.

The US had come up with the idea of building ROZs in the Pakistan-Afghanistan bordering areas to ensure jobs to the people of areas in a bid to stop them from joining militant groups and indulging in terrorism. Alas, the idea was mishandled by the then economic managers of the country as they quite illogically had started asking US authorities to build ROZs in mainland Pakistan, including the quite peaceful Punjab province. Resultantly, the US ditched the project as establishing RoZs in mainland Pakistan could not serve the purpose of the idea.

The US had come up with the ROZs idea in the Musharraf regime while keeping the success stories of the model in the bordering areas of Egypt, Vietnam, Jordon and Israel, where the industrial establishments had already been commissioned and were bringing dividends to the people of the bordering areas.

PM Advisor, Razak Dawood, during the interview, said, “Now we will refloat the idea for building the industrial facilities on the pattern of the earlier proposed model of RoZs in the Pakistan-Afghanistan bordering areas to ensure job opportunities to the youth on both sides of the border. From the facilities, products will be manufactured and exported to US market on zero duty. This will not only help increase the export of both countries but also ensure jobs on a reasonable scale.”

One of the underlying reasons for every conceivable ill that has engulfed the Pakhtun tribal areas of Pakistan has been the lack rather absence of economic opportunities, particularly employment. This, in turn, has been due to the absence of any economic infrastructure there. Due to largely rugged and mountainous topography, agriculture cannot be carried out extensively in the border regions. The only other viable economic options through which economic opportunities could have been created are mineral exploration and development and setting up of manufacturing units.

The US, during General Musharraf’s rule, had floated the idea of establishing industries under ROZs for its own strategic interests in the region. Realizing that extremism and terrorism could be effectively countered by preventing legions of impoverished, malnourished and radically backward tribesmen of Pakistan from joining the ranks of local and global terrorist organizations and stopping the tribal areas from becoming hubs of extremist and terrorist outfits was to give economic space to the region’s residents. For it, an elaborate economic infrastructure, like ROZs, was direly needed.

The dilly-dallying by Pakistani authorities about the RoZs during the Musharraf regime was mainly due to the “indifferent” and “strange” logic on their part. For a long time, the main bottlenecks in negotiations about ROZs had been the inappropriate demands from Pakistani negotiators to include the October 2005 earthquake affected areas of KP’s Hazara division and Azad Kashmir as well as textiles producing areas of the Punjab in the RoZs idea and extend to these areas the concessions which the US was offering for the former FATA. The industrialists and businesspeople of urban areas were hand glove in with officials to highjack the ROZs plan for their own vested interests. Because the idea of the ROZs envisaged the provision of zero-tariff excess to products of the industrial units to US markets. It indeed would have been a big benefit for the Pakhtun tribal regions industrial infrastructure to become self-sustainable but the effort on part of the greedy industrialist-business lobby to see in ROZs for their profit was unfortunate and the whole country has paid dearly for their chicanery. Nevertheless, the Americans, cognizant more of their strategic and general interests and the compatible needs of the residents of the tribal regions, resisted the undue demands from certain Pakistani officials and businesspeople and have stuck to their original ROZs plan.

The proposal of ROZs or other similar plans have been critical for the overall uplift of the Pakhtun tribal regions, which even the Americans might not have envisioned while coming up with the idea, therefore, more seriousness and commitment was required from the US as well as the Pakistani side.

Like any process of economic development, the ROZs would have their cultural impact. The most essential socio-cultural advantage of the ROZs in the tribal region, besides their economic dimension, is that they could go a long way in transforming the socio-cultural and social-psychological complexion of the area and its inhabitants. This indeed is a great advantage which is urgently needed. The US mainly seemed to be interested in attaining not the same from the ROZs but perhaps only to dissuade tribesmen from joining extremist ranks or to provide sanctuaries to foreign terrorists for money on their inhospitable land. However, the windfall is the natural corollary of any industrialization process, but more relevant in the Pakhtun border regions context that it would change the entire social make-up of the area from a backward, subsistence economy to a mass production and profit-seeking region. The social impact of it, in turn, would be a more outward looking, accommodating and socially mobile community instead of hitherto closed and completely static society.