NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 16

Urgent imperatives for development in merged tribal districts

In the recent national elections for the National Assembly of Pakistan and the provincial assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, particularly in the Merged Tribal Districts (MTDs) or former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (known by the acronym FATA), the young population actively participated in choosing their representatives. This youth engagement in the national electoral process reflects the desire of this region’s population to bring about change in their environment through peaceful, democratic means.

This is noteworthy considering that Pakhtun tribal areas have had a reputation for being hotbeds of extremism and terrorism. Despite the presence of radicals and terrorists in the MTDs, the majority of residents, especially the young population, has been peace-loving and eager to improve their environment and living standards. In this election, candidates supported by the PTI secured a dominant majority in the Pakhtun tribal districts, with notable figures like former Pakhtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) members of the National Assembly, Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, failing to win. This suggests that the young men and women in the region aspire to integrate into the national mainstream for development. However, there are multiple frustrations among the young population of the Pakhtun tribal regions that need to be highlighted and discussed to ensure that any policy changes for the MTDs take them into consideration.

The population of the former FATA, now named MTDs in the KP Province, has endured significant hardships over the last 20 years, coinciding with the onset of the global war on terror and its focus on neighboring Afghanistan. The most affected segment of the tribal region’s population has been its largest, the young section. These individuals have faced terrorism, military operations, displacements, economic losses, and more. These adversities have bred multiple frustrations within the MTDs population, now being exploited by groups like the PTM. Under the guise of ethnic rights, the PTM has been capitalizing on the discontentment of the young men and women in the tribal districts, with the aim of fueling opposition against the state. This poses a dangerous situation for the country and its institutions, necessitating alternative approaches to negotiate with such groups and dissuade public support.

There has been minimal interest in the region itself and its people, particularly regarding their needs and aspirations. This lack of attention has led to confusion among outsiders about the inhabitants of the Pakhtun tribal regions. In reality, the residents of these areas, formerly FATA, are humans like those in any other part of the world – intelligent, hardworking, and desiring development. However, the social and governance structures designed for the region have impeded the people from utilizing their potential, engaging in hard work, and experiencing development.

The potential of the youthful population in the MTDs has been largely overlooked by state authorities. Politicians, military governments, and the bureaucracy all share responsibility for this indifferent state attitude towards the young men and women of the merged tribal districts.

Only the young individuals in the region truly understand their problems, developmental needs, and aspirations. Therefore, it is crucial to listen to them. This approach would bring a new dimension to policies regarding the region, making them more rational and increasing their likelihood of success.

Evidently, a significant portion of militants within Pakistani militant and terrorist groups has been young men hailing from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Following the events of 9/11, the merged tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) transformed into the world’s largest terrorist enclave, falsely operating under the banner of Islam. Given this context, it was anticipated that the government would establish a well-articulated policy to address the education and employment needs of the youth in these regions. The absence of educational and employment opportunities has served as the primary driving force for youths to join militant and terrorist organizations, fueled by the allure of gaining popularity and power, coupled with the economic hardships faced by them and their families.

Additionally, it is noteworthy that many militant commanders of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) originated from the ex-FATA, exemplified by Hakimullah Mehsud, the former head of TTP, who was reportedly in his early 30s. In this context, the formulation and comprehensive execution of a youth policy for the former FATA became imperative. However, due to the absence of such a policy, the situation spiraled out of control, and an increasing number of youths succumbed to the propaganda and allure of possessing arms associated with militants.

At present, a policy vacuum regarding the young population of the merged tribal districts persists, leaving their frustrations unaddressed and intensifying. While state forces have successfully defeated militant groups in the region, the youth are no longer drawn to armed militias. Nevertheless, they are now gravitating towards groups like the PTM, and the latter is capitalizing on this shift. The recent election of PTI members from the Pakhtun tribal regions is a positive development for Pakistan, given PTI’s national standing.

The formulation of a policy to address the problems and challenges faced by the youth of former FATA, enabling them to channel their talents for the benefit of the country, society, and community, holds extraordinary importance. Policies must be responsive to the needs and concerns of the youth, as their purpose is to benefit the majority of the population.

Notably, 80 percent of the population in MTDs of KP relies on farming and natural resources. There is a crucial need for sustained investment in the industrial, mineral, and technical education sectors to revitalize livelihoods and engage more young people.

The youth literacy rate in the tribal regions is alarmingly low, hindering meaningful progress. Policymakers must devise strategies to increase literacy rates in the tribal districts, with a focus on education as a catalyst for positive change.

Given the significant economic and infrastructural disparities, youth-specific policies should delineate areas and processes where young men and women can contribute to the economic and infrastructural development of the region.

Addressing the multifaceted frustrations of the young population in merged tribal districts is paramount at this juncture. Failure to do so may result in the emergence of obscurantist groups that exploit their sentiments, exacerbating problems for both the state and society.