The most dangerous place in the world

October 29, 2010 § 1 Comment

Something a little different for this blog today, and I won’t make a habit of it, but I’m going to tell you about the seminar I went to last night. This is because it was about the politics of probably the most important place in the world right now. A subject which, despite the fact that it is probably the most important place in the world right now, hardly ever gets discussed. This is because people get so hung up on the geo-political, strategic, and military goings on in the area (usually in articles with stupid melodramatic headlines like “the most dangerous place in the world”) that they ignore the political aspects which underlie the whole problem.

I’m talking, for the second time this week, about Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The talk was by Professor Safraz Khan of the University of Peshawar, and I couldn’t agree more strongly with his thesis.

These areas were formed as the result of Britain’s historical dithering over Afghanistan. Never having been sure whether to advance and secure Afghanistan (the forward policy) or to retreat and leave the whole area as a buffer (the backwards, or closed border, policy), Britain did both at various times, dithered, were beaten in three wars, suffered the greatest military defeat ever to befall an army:

Remains of an army

Elizabeth Butler's famous painting of all that was left of the 15,000 soldiers, 30,000 camp followers and 50,000 horses and livestock that were sent to Kabul in 1842. That horse subsequently died of its wounds; the soldier survived his.

and finally came up with the FATA. Under these rules, the FATA – seven districts and six frontier regions – are not part of Afghanistan, but nor are they really part of Pakistan. Instead they are governed by the Frontier Crimes Regulation of 1901. Under this arrangement the FATA is allowed to self govern under traditional arrangements, but there are a number of political agents (originally appointed by the British and, from 1947, the Pakistanis) who oversee arrangements and can collectively punish villages that step out of line.

And that is how it has been governed ever since. Since the restoration of the 1973 constitution the FATA organises for itself the election of 17 MNAs and 8 senators to the Federal Parliament (which is kind of silly really as the Federal Parliament can legislate for everywhere in Pakistan except the FATA).

Clearly there are huge problems in terms of fairness and human rights: traditional governance has meant a ruling Malik answerable only to the political agent, who is not answerable to anyone. It has meant local jirgas acting as the only legal force in the region – refusing to allow women to serve on the jury, or even to make complaints, and handing out draconian sentences without due process.  It has also meant that, as the Maliks control elections they can, and often do, deny women the vote.

It is also a huge problem in terms of security. The FATA is already effectively outwith the rule of law and the perfect place for militancy to fester. Add in geopolitical factors: the USA using the area to create an anti-soviet Mujahadeen (Prof Khan told us of his experiences in Peshawar in the ’80s when Thatcher came to visit and urged them to “wage jihad”, and Regan told them “the mujahadeen are the George Washingtons of Afghanistan), Saudi Arabia pouring millions into ensuring Salafi Islam drives out all other forms, and the Pakistani Army supporting the militias in the hope of harnessing them against India, and you have a recipe for what happens next. Small wonder therefore, that so many of the Maliks have now either been eliminated and replaced by the Taliban or have come to an agreement with them.

It is also a major problem for governance. The special status of the FATA does not give the people more autonomy. It effectively reduces the area to the status of a colony – with no say at all over their own rule.

Prof. Khan has a plan:

  1. Extend Pakistani law to cover the tribal areas. This would give the residents protection in terms of human rights, and give the Pakistani government the power to enforce rights like the right to due process, and female suffrage, which other Pakistanis take for granted. It would also allow political parties to operate in the tribal areas, allowing people to organise along ideological lines using arguments instead of guns, and around more ideologies than the Taliban one.
  2. Form self-governing local councils, elected by universal suffrage, allowing the people, rather than the Maliks and the Taliban, to rule the region
  3. Form a combined council for the FATA who can decide whether to become a full province in their own right or to become a formal part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the former North West Frontier Province).

Virtually every problem of the FATA can be traced back to its governance. Solve the governance problem and you will solve most of the other issues that ail the region. Moreover we know from Pakistan Survey that parts 2 and 3 of this plan enjoy extraordinarily high levels of support and part 1 enjoys 58% support (my thought would be that most of the opponents  are opposed to the extension of Pakistani law over which they had no say – reform of the governance might allay some of these fears).

Reform of the FATA was promised by President Zardari on the 14th of August 2008. However, these plans appear to have been withdrawn. There are two main opponents to the plan. The most powerful is the army; the army are a major power in Pakistan and they enjoy the special status of FATA, as they are the most powerful force in the region and they don’t want to share. The army also have, on occasion, pursued their own independent strategic policy – which tends be more conciliatory towards militant groups, who could prove useful in Kashmir, than the civilian policy.

The other opposition to the plan comes from those, the US included, who are worried that bringing democracy to the tribal areas would formalise Talibani control as the Taliban would win the elections. Prof Khan claims this argument does a disservice to the progressive nature of the local public – particularly if women are allowed to vote. He points to the result in Swat in 2008 where, just 6 months after the Taliban had been forced out of the area, the people of Swat elected to their 8 provincial seats: 7 members of the very secular, very anti-Taliban ANP and 1 member of the mainstream centre-left PPP. The religious MMA (affectionately known locally as the Military Mullah Alliance) were utterly panned.

I tend to agree with Prof Khan.

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