NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 29

The urgent need for local government structures in former FATA

Occasional communication with local people in the former districts of FATA, particularly in the northern districts of Khyber, Bajaur, Orakzai, and Kurram, reveals that militants and terrorists are attempting to regroup and have resumed their activities, albeit at a low profile.

However, these activities have been marked by major attacks, such as the one in Bajaur in July 2023, which killed more than 50 people. Recent terrorist attacks on security personnel in the South Waziristan district further indicate that terrorists are trying to revive their networks. This situation necessitates immediate action to ensure sustainable peace in the former FATA, which was merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province in 2018 through the 25th Constitutional Amendment.

The reports of terrorists regrouping in the merged tribal districts (MTDs) of KP are alarming, considering that peace was restored only after great sacrifices by the people of these areas over more than a decade. If peace in the MTDs of KP is disrupted again, the consequences could be disastrous, and restoring order and social control in these geographically challenging regions would be nearly impossible. The most effective way to achieve lasting peace in the region is through large-scale, multidimensional development.

Although the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government announced in 2019 a commitment of one trillion rupees (one hundred billion each year) over ten years for development in these areas, these funds have not been fully utilized for various reasons. Moreover, the funds that have been spent so far have not made a significant impact due to improper utilization. Despite the federal and KP governments having numerous institutions and strategies for development work in the MTDs, these efforts have yet to yield substantial results.

A visit to one of the most accessible districts, Khyber, which is adjacent to the provincial capital Peshawar, reveals the dire socioeconomic conditions there. The best way to prevent the emergence and growth of extremist and terrorist groups in the tribal regions is through development, and the most effective way to achieve this development is through large-scale community participation. This participation can only be realized if the people have forums for participation and self-governance at the grassroots level, which depends on establishing local government structures.

It is important to note that while the process of integrating the former FATA into KP province was finalized in May 2018, it remains incomplete. The regrouping efforts by terrorists and recent attacks in the MTDs underscore the urgent need to establish normal governing institutions and secure the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Establishing normal governing institutions in the ex-FATA is crucial. Over the past 15 years, unprecedented terrorism by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its foreign affiliates, such as Al Qaeda, which found refuge in Pakistan’s tribal belt, has devastated the region economically, politically, administratively, and psychologically. Whatever minimal state apparatus existed in the tribal region was obliterated by terrorism. Although successful military operations against local and international terrorist groups have brought some stability to the former FATA, the region is far from normal.

The merger of the erstwhile FATA with KP, enacted by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) federal government (2013-2018) with support from major political parties like the PPP and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was a controversial step. Nonetheless, it is now history, and the tribal belt must be integrated into KP despite numerous challenges. Recognizing the difficulties in integration and the resultant vacuum following the FATA merger with KP, the government enacted the FATA Interim Regulatory Framework, replacing the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) to address these issues.

Today, the critical issue is not merely the integration of FATA but establishing normal and self-sustaining governing structures. A significant step in this direction was holding local government elections in the MTDs in December 2021 and March 2022, alongside LG elections in the rest of KP. However, the most crucial step is establishing viable and vibrant local governments in all tribal districts.

Unfortunately, profound political instability in the country has hindered this process. The dislodging of the PTI government of former PM Imran Khan in April 2022 and the subsequent dissolution of the KP provincial assembly in February 2023 led to a deep political crisis. As a result, local governments in various districts of KP, particularly the MTDs, remain largely nominal and unable to play a significant role in the region’s development. Effective local governance structures are essential for the development and stabilization of the former FATA regions, and without them, the progress remains superficial and inadequate.

It is important to recall that national and international so-called Jihadist organizations and individuals find the environment in former FATA extremely conducive for establishing their base for regional insurgency and international terrorism under the guise of Islam. These negative developments in FATA are rooted in the long-standing political and legal vacuum in these areas, primarily due to the absence of local government structures. This vacuum has hindered the establishment of state authority in the region and prevented the development and provision of fundamental needs for the people.

Profound social, political, and economic changes, particularly in the 21st century, have further exposed the inadequacies of the colonial-era legal and administrative structures of former FATA. These outdated structures failed to address the complex problems and needs of the growing population, gradually rendering the existing administrative apparatus redundant. As a result, the state’s already limited authority in the tribal region eroded, allowing negative trends to thrive. Local, national, and international terrorist and militant groups, as well as criminal gangs like kidnappers and extortionists, exploited the situation and established their bases in the region.

There is little realization within Pakistan’s policymaking institutions regarding the need to formulate a new administrative system for the region. There has been no serious effort to introduce a fully functional local government or municipal council system in FATA to provide a rudimentary modern administration.

Establishing workable local governments is urgently needed to restore order and peace in the tribal districts and sustain these structures. Introducing functional local government systems is crucial for creating a stable administrative framework that can address the region’s needs and prevent further exploitation by militant and criminal elements.