Last month, Pakistan made one of the most important political moves in its 70-year history. Parliament passed legislation, officially the 25th Constitutional Amendment Bill, which paves the way for the merger of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas with the neighboring province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. On May 31, Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain signed the bill into law.
Pakistan’s tribal belt will now come under the writ of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s provincial government. North Waziristan, South Waziristan and the rest of Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies will become districts of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. No longer will they be loosely administered by national government representatives known as political agents, who were infamous for their corruption and mismanagement.
The tribal areas’ merger is a watershed development in Pakistan’s political history that is poised to bring positive change to the country’s economic, political and security landscape. However, like any far-reaching political reform, and particularly in a volatile nation like Pakistan, it is also fraught with risk.
The ramifications of the merger are immense. With the Federally Administered Tribal Areas now coming under the writ of the state, a long-neglected and restive region can finally expect to see development and investment. Even in a poor country like Pakistan, the economic disparities between the tribal areas and Pakistan’s so-called settled areas are stark. This disparity came into sharp focus for me last year, when the Pakistani army flew me and several other American analysts from Islamabad to North Waziristan to witness the results of the military’s counterterrorism efforts in the tribal belt. As our helicopter flew over Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, we saw ample farmland and green space. But the moment we entered the tribal belt’s airspace, the landscape immediately became brown and barren.
More development brings the potential for more prosperity, which in turn can help reduce extremism and militancy. For several decades, these afflictions have been notoriously endemic in the tribal belt. In 2009, U.S. President Obama Barack Obama referred to the tribal areas as “the most dangerous place in the world.” It was a sanctuary for the worst terrorists around, from local groups like the Pakistani Taliban to global syndicates like al-Qaida.
Additionally, more regulation means more governance and more rights for the residents of the northwestern tribal regions who have suffered extensively throughout Pakistan’s modern history. In more recent years, they have been caught in the crossfire of the military’s scorched-earth tactics against terrorists, maimed by land mines and killed and displaced by conflict. But ever since the founding of Pakistan in 1947, tribal residents have suffered at the hands of the Frontier Crimes Regulations, the draconian, British colonial-era laws that hamper access to legal assistance and often penalize entire families for the modest transgressions of a single individual.
The precarious plight of Pakistan’s tribal residents, most of them ethnic Pashtuns, has been brought home in recent months by the emergence of the Pashtun Tahafuz, or Protection, Movement, known as PTM, a campaign that has staged protests calling on the Pakistani state, and specifically the military, to protect Pashtun rights. The PTM’s demands include removing land mines from the tribal areas, ending extrajudicial killings and producing in court those they claim have been “disappeared” by the state.
The merger of the tribal areas with a neighboring province is poised to rectify longstanding problems, but it could also create new ones.
Talk of formally merging the tribal areas with the rest of the country has animated Pakistani politics for years. So why has a consensus only emerged around it now? One reason may be improved security. While the tribal belt remains rife with extremism and militancy, the army’s counterterrorism efforts in recent years have pacified the region, to an extent. The relatively improved security situation will ease the governance burdens for the provincial authorities in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Another reason could be the PTM, which has become a major thorn in the military’s side. The military has consistently lambasted the Pashtun movement as an externally supported campaign to destabilize Pakistan and would much prefer that the PTM go away. While merging the tribal areas has never been a PTM demand, Pakistan’s military may believe that going forward with a major decision meant to benefit Pashtuns will address PTM grievances and compel the movement to ease up on its activism.
One more explanation for the timing of the tribal areas’ merger could be purely political. Next month, Pakistan will be holding one of its most closely contested national elections in years. Pashtuns, who make up about 15 percent of Pakistan’s 200 million people and are the country’s second-largest ethnic group, are a key constituency. The political consensus within Pakistan’s Parliament in favor of a merger may in part be a reflection of a keen desire by political parties to capture Pashtun votes.
All that said, while the merger is poised to rectify longstanding problems in the tribal belt, it could also create new ones—with troubling consequences.
First, not everyone, including many of those the merger is meant to benefit, is happy about the move. Some tribal elders claim they were never consulted in advance about the decision. Others, who want the tribal areas to become a new province, not part of an existing one, have threatened protests. Such unhappiness could kindle more grievances and anger at a state that many Pashtuns in the tribal areas have long resented and mistrusted.
Second, the merger is staunchly opposed by neighboring Afghanistan. Kabul has never recognized the Durand Line, the long, rugged border that demarcates Afghanistan and Pakistan and runs through the tribal areas, which the Afghan government claims as its own. To many Afghans, Pakistan’s decision to incorporate the tribal areas into Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province will smack of Pakistani efforts to legitimize a frontier that Kabul rejects.
Pakistan, in fact, may already be resorting to damage control to try to smooth over the latest tension point in its perpetually fraught relationship with Afghanistan. Just last week, Gen. Qamar Bajwa, the chief of the Pakistani army, visited Kabul to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. The merger may have been an unpublicized item on their agenda.
The new administration of the tribal areas undoubtedly represents a major milestone. However, Pakistan has much work to do, both domestically and regionally, to ensure that such a complex and far-reaching transition goes smoothly—and that the many potential benefits of the merger are able to materialize.
Michael Kugelman, Associate Editor at worldpoliticsreview