Pakistan has abolished its troubled northwest tribal areas in a historic parliamentary bill granting rights to millions of conflict-weary people and scrapping a draconian colonial-era regime.
The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were merged into the country’s administrative mainstream, becoming part of the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, by a parliamentary amendment approved by the senate on Friday.
Since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the tribal areas – a rugged, impoverished swath bordering Afghanistan – have been ruled directly by Islamabad under a harsh colonial-era system of law, with omnipotent political agents exercising the right to impose collective punishments on tribes and to jail suspects without trial.
Sanctuary for militants
During the US-led “War on Terror” it became a sanctuary for al Qaeda terrorists and Taliban militants fighting an insurgency against an international coalition in neighboring Afghanistan.
Former US President Barack Obama dubbed it the “most dangerous place in the world.”
The Pakistani military has waged a series of major operations there in the past 10 years to tackle rising militancy.
For decades, reformers have called for the area to be brought into the administrative fold as it became increasingly lawless and opaque, with the military banning outsiders.
Speaking a day earlier to the National Assembly, where the bill was passed, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said that “a much-needed national consensus (on FATA) has been achieved.”
“The same schools, hospitals, roads that everyone else in Pakistan has access to” must now be given to the people of FATA, he added.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League Noon (PMLN) party announced that reforms would be accompanied by a $865 million package to rehabilitate the infrastructure of the region.
’Not considered human’
In the tribal areas, people came out onto the streets and distributed sweets to celebrate the reform.
Manzoor Ahmad, 31, from Mohmand tribal area, said that he was feeling free because “the black laws will be abolished.”
“A day before we were living in the colonial age and now, today we are enjoying actual freedom. Now FATA will also participate in the development of Pakistan,” he added.
Another resident said it will be like starting a new life.
“We were never considered human under the centuries-old colonial law. But now we will stand in front of the world and will show them that we also deserve to start our new life!” said Dilawar Shah, 40.
Opposition leader Imran Khan, whose political party runs KP’s provincial government, called the move “a huge step to address the grievances of the people of FATA.”
Recently, discontent has spilled out of the tribal areas, where years of war and violence have left villages destroyed and lives ruined by militant violence and heavy-handed government interference, particularly indiscriminate killing and arrests.
The area’s people, the majority of whom are ethnic Pashtuns, or Pakhtuns, have begun to speak out against injustices committed by the powerful military, a normally taboo subject.
The establishment has been shocked by mass protests organized by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) – “tahafuz” means protection in the Urdu language.
The movement – which is committed to nonviolence – is demanding authorities respond to accusations of involvement in the death and disappearance of hundreds of Pashtuns in FATA, and guarantee rights for the area’s tribes.
Traditionally, the tribal areas were run by both political agents, using the harsh Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), and tribal chiefs, or maliks, presiding over tribal councils, jirgas.
The system was largely obliterated by militants who overran the areas during the allied invasion of Afghanistan, forcing out political agents and killing over 100 maliks.
Hopes for improved women’s rights
The tribal areas are strongly patriarchal. Women’s rights groups hope the new reforms will lead to a more equal society.
“With the FCR and the tribal jirga in place, the entire system in FATA was not at all women-friendly, there was no representation or voice of women being heard. With the passing of this bill one hopes that the invisibility of women won’t be there anymore,” said Samar Mina Ullah, an Islamabad-based women’s rights activist who has worked extensively in FATA.
The reforms were welcomed as a popular measure across Pakistan. Analysts said the move was clearly timed to boost the ruling PLMN’s chances at general elections scheduled to take place in July, but that they were long overdue.
“It is a huge victory for reform-oriented Pakistanis,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, a prominent political analyst and columnist.
“The normalization of FATA will immediately alter the legal status of FATA’s residents from compromised citizenship to normal, equal citizenship.”
Still haunted by militancy
Zaidi added that credit was due to all those who cooperated to pass the landmark bill, including the military who have retaken militant-controlled territory in a series of operations since 2014.
However, the shadow of militancy still hangs over the region.
In February, US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats accused Pakistan of holding back on cooperation with the US while failing to take tougher action against militant groups.
President Donald Trump very publicly emphasized US concerns about Pakistan’s reliability and integrity in his first tweet of 2018, putting Islamabad in the crosshairs for its “lies and deceit.”
“They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help,” he tweeted.
The online blast previewed a January 8 announcement that the US would freeze security assistance to Pakistan – close to $1 billion – over its failure to clamp down on terror groups within its borders.
CNN’s Sophia Saifi reported from Islamabad.