The state has grossly misunderstood Pakistan’s tribal areas

The state has grossly misunderstood Pakistan’s tribal areas


Following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistan's rulers came under tremendous pressure to align their policies with US designs. That meant subjugating Pakistan's national interests to those of Washington’s.

Pakistani leaders caved in and provided airbases for the US airforce to strike targets inside Afghanistan — the most unfriendly act by a country against its erstwhile friend at the behest of another country.

Not only that, in 2002, Islamabad decided to induct its military into the tribal areas, and changed the entire socio-political coloring of the area with grave consequences for peace and security. 

Because of ill-fated policies using brute force to change the dynamics of the tribal areas, both administrative and cultural norms rooted in the psyche of the people, and corresponding to their aspirations, have been destroyed.

Back in 2003 and 2004, it was naively believed that any policy in the area backed by overwhelming military prowess would deliver. Fifteen years on, and that basic error of judgment and understanding has not yet been corrected.

The persecution, harassment, house searches, and the decimation of villages and markets that caused the displacement of tens of thousands of people since 2008, also drove out about 150,000 people into neighboring Afghanistan’s Khost province. Such was the scale of daily harassment that tribesmen truly believed they would be safer in war-torn Afghanistan.

For many years, these tribesmen lived in Khost with their families and only recently began to return to their villages which have in most cases been razed to the ground, despite some belated rehabilitation and reconstruction.

But now another wave of migration is upon the tribal areas, and another exodus; caused by more uncertainty and harassment. On May 26th, reacting to a protest by unarmed tribesmen in North Waziristan, it is alleged that security forces opened fire and killed thirteen people while causing injuries to many more.

The Pukhtoon Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) leaders — both members of Parliament — who were leading a small group of protesters were blamed for the incident. Both are now in detention and will face trial for offences I believe they have not committed.

In the wake of this incident, another drive to ‘cleanse’ the area was launched. Through my own sources, I have come to learn that over a thousand families have been forced to cross over into Afghanistan to seek shelter and protection in the last two weeks alone.

Once more, the suffering of the people can be gauged from a familiar desperation — one which has forced them to abandon their homes yet again and become refugees in a land as lawless as Khost.

Once more, the suffering of the people can be gauged from a familiar desperation — one which has forced them to abandon their homes yet again and become refugees in a land as lawless as Khost.

Rustam Shah Mohmand

When the state loses contact with the masses, when civilian institutions are sidelined and made irrelevant, when areas are heavily militarized, such instances of unwarranted brute force occur with impunity.

For the last 17 years, Pakistan’s tribesmen have been subjected to great pain. People have suffered at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban, US drones and bombings, assaults by Daesh and operations conducted by security forces either in collaboration with the US or independently.

Never before in its recorded history have the people of the area been displaced in such huge numbers or killed and wounded by the thousands. Never before has such widespread damage been caused to properties and infrastructure been irreparably damaged.

All this has ushered in a new culture of hatred and hopelessness. People feel humiliated and marginalized. A new social dynamic with a bedrock of enmity and revenge is taking root.

To make things worse, existing institutions which ran simply and effectively are being dismantled. Before 2002, the tribal areas were always peaceful because there was a robust institutionalised system of accountability woven into the fabric of the area’s social norms. Foolishly, that centuries’ old edifice of self governance was destroyed, institutions collapsed and mayhem, chaos and a spiralling rise in crime saw the emergence of non-state actors. 

Now, with the merger of FATA into mainland Pakistan, people are being exposed to the vagaries of a new system where disputes will take decades to resolve and hefty fees will need to be paid to lawyers. Also, it is where scarce land will be acquired for building police lines, prisons, courthouses and homes for thousands of state employees and where precious resources will be invested in building office complexes and residences.

Not surprisingly, the ruling class is hopelessly out of tune with ground realities. Leaders rely on ‘briefings ‘ by the civil and military bureaucracy. 

Before further damage is caused, these leaders must make an agonizing reappraisal of objective realities and review lopsided policies with regards to the tribal areas — a place where people used to live under a system which provided peace and where each family, however poor, had the backing of the whole tribe. 

There was happiness and a security balance, and by and large, as the old systems have collapsed, it is fore-mostly this happiness that has been lost to the locals, perhaps forever.

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