New war in FATA

15 million plus FATA Pashtuns have been cheated once again by the rulers of the country. It has already happened more than a dozen times during the last 70 years. The government has once more failed to implement the publicly promised reforms for bringing out Pashtuns of the area from colonial bondage. But the betrayal is bound to elicit a very bitter response this time round among the people due to the nature of public commitment. It all started on December 24, 2014 when an All Parties Conference (APC) approved a 20-point programme called the National Action Plan ( NAP) for defeating extremism and terrorism in the aftermath of the APS Peshawar tragedy. Mainstreaming and reforming FATA was one of the most important points of the said programme. But as we know, the government dragged its feet on the implementation of NAP. Frustrated by the government’s reluctance to go ahead with reforms process, some of the active FATA parliamentarians presented a bill in the National Assembly in 2015 to merge the area into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Under pressure from parliamentarians and other democratic political forces, the federal government appointed a five member committee for ascertaining the opinion of FATA Pashtuns and coming out with proposals for reforms in November 2015. The committee presented its report in 2016 recommending a package of reforms. The government also declared to give the right to the people of FATA to have representation in the Provincial Assembly of Pakhtunkhwa in the general elections to be held in 2018 as a first step towards merger of the area into the province. Despite certain loopholes, the reforms package was welcomed as a step in the right direction. But then, the government started backtracking on its implementation.

Initially, there was no tangible reason given by the government for backing out from the reforms package prepared by a high-profile government committee. The government of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in any case generally not very keen on issues faced by the people living outside Punjab. Moreover, it was too overwhelmed by its own woes to focus on major national issues during the last year or so. But the FATA Reforms package is too important and serious a subject to be swept under the rug, because apart from involving the question of fundamental rights of millions of people, it is also vital for defeating terrorism in Pakistan and in the region. It is only by empowering the people of the area and properly integrating them into the state, which will deny the use of large swaths of territory to local, regional and international terror networks. Initially, there was mysterious silence from the government’s side on the issue for some time. Interestingly, Pakistan Army’s leadership, collectively and individually gave public statements in favour of reforms. The impression emerging at that stage was that it is was the civilian government which was dragging its feet on the implementation of reforms package. But then, Minister Safron Abdul Qadir Baloch formally informed us that although the military was in favour of mainstreaming FATA, it was not in favour of merging the area into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, at least for the time being. The message was that as the military has vetoed the merger, the civilian government can’t do anything about it. He didn’t give any reason for it.

But the Pakistan Army’s announcement of launching Operation 4 in Rajgal Valley of Khyber Agency on July 16 revealed the advent of a new war in FATA. It is war against the so-called Islamic State (IS) and its allies. The ISPR released photos of Pakistani soldiers reoccupying high peaks in Rajgal valley but we were never told as to when and who had occupied this area. After Zarb-e-Azb, the general impression was that FATA has been cleared from terrorists. Since military operations in FATA don’t have any civilian oversight at all, the ISPR press releases are the only source of information about the area. So now, we have come to know about the presence of pro IS forces in Khyber Agency. People of the area know that it is Mangal Bagh’s Lashkar-e-Islami (LI) that is closely allied with IS cadres in the adjacent Afghan district of Achin and Nazian of the Nangrahar Province. Tirah Valley, with a comparatively more difficult terrain, plays the same role for Deh Bala district in Afghanistan. So now we know that there is an organised supply line to IS pockets in Eastern Afghanistan from tribal areas in Pakistan. Similarly, on July 14, the Pentagon declared that a drone strike on July 11 has taken out an important IS commander, Abu Saeed in Watapour district of Kunar province, Afghanistan. Abu Saeed is a nom de gurre for Molvi Abdul Rahman Ghalib from Bajour Agency. He was accompanied by many people from his area fighting alongside him. As if all this isn’t enough, there are reports from Shawal and Datta Khel areas of North Waziristan about the presence of militants. Recently, a curfew was imposed, not only in Momand Agency but also in Shabqadar sub division of Charsada district. The recent devastating twin suicide attacks in Parachinar were a grim reminder of the fact that FATA still remains in the eye of storm. Isn’t the presence of the footprint of the so-called IS and other militants in the area after dozens of military operations an important national security issue to be discussed by the Parliament, Cabinet and other national security forums? It is over and above the sanctuaries of Afghan Taliban. The people of FATA are victims of misguided state policies for the last 40 years. The area was first used as a launching pad for the anti-Soviet War in Afghanistan. It has also been used by the Taliban when the area remained under control of terrorists for almost a decade after 9/11. And now, a new war involving the IS is going to rage bringing death and destruction to the Pashtun tribes for no fault of theirs. The irony is that a new war in the area has started when the IDPs from the previous wars have yet to be rehabilitated. The people of the area are treated as vanquished population by both the terrorists and the state. The nascent civil society of the area is now demanding investigation into crimes against people of the area. Will someone listen to them?

The writer is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs.

Afrasiab Khattak

Afrasiab Khattak is a retired Senator and an analyst of regional affairs

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