Between Scylla and Charybdis: life in Pakistan’s tribal frontier

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas touching Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan suffer a toxic mix of state and non-state violence and neglect. The consequences are unlikely to be good.

Farooq Yousaf
2 December 2014

Troubled territory: the FATA areas are shaded dark. Wikimedia Commons.

Whether it’s the drone strikes, terrorism or military operations in FATA, all of them lead to the killing of the innocent people. Through drone strikes, civilian casualties occur and through military operations hatred and enmity against the state multiplies.

These are the sentiments of a Pakistani student from Frontier Region Bannu in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). At Pakistan’s lawless frontier, this is a semi-autonomous entity abutting Afghanistan, governed through tribal codes and rules known as the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). Although commonly seen as jammed between two major evils, the Pakistan army and the Taliban, its inhabitants also face a third, unseen—CIA-operated drone strikes.

While FATA was used as a springboard for training ‘fighters’ for the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad in the 1980s, it was still relatively stable and peaceful until the onset of the ‘war on terror’ in 2001. Soon after the US and its allies initiated ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ in the wake of the ‘9/11’ attacks, FATA again became the centre of attention, a safe haven for the Taliban and other militant factions such as al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network.

The Pakistani government has since periodically launched military offensives and brokered peace accords, yet none of these efforts has established an enduring peace in FATA. And locals bear the brunt of the offensives, forcing many to leave their homes, as of the deals and the drone strikes.

‘Good’ Taliban?

A female student from Kurram Agency, based in Islamabad, gave this assessment:

FATA is lawless land and the government has different policies regarding use of force against some factions of the Taliban, where some are targeted whereas a few are ignored. But the people of FATA are suffering from every kind of militancy—whether from the ‘good’ Taliban or the ‘bad’ Taliban. In this way drones are somehow effective to deter the most dangerous factions of the Taliban. At the same time, the drones strategy is not good for Pakistan's image in the world and also it would not bring good results in the long run.

The narrative of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban has long persisted among the Pakistani intelligentsia. Sartaj Aziz, who advises the ruling PML-N party on foreign affairs, recently caused controversy by affirming that ‘good’ Taliban were not Pakistan’s problem.

In the wake of national and international concern, Aziz was forced to clarify his statement. But it was evident that a strong segment of Pakistan’s establishment still resists going after Taliban factions which don’t pose a threat to the state. Pakistan’s purported softness towards the Haqqani and Afghan splinters based in FATA has added to the plight of the common man in the region.

Much of FATA’s social structure is based on the malik—the tribal elder. But in the militant consolidation of recent years, more than 100 maliks have been assassinated by the Taliban, furthering the hold of the latter.

The Taliban’s guerrilla character makes it difficult for drones as well as Pakistani army officers to differentiate between civilians and militants. In October, with the military operation expanding to Khyber Agency, local militant leaders warned the residents against leaving the area—indicating a readiness to use them as human shields during an operation.

No compensation

Nor is loss met by compensation. A recent study on drone victims commissioned by the Open Society Foundation found no mechanism for compensating FATA civilian families

affected by drones, military operations or suicide attacks. Yet the government frequently compensates affected families from other parts of the country.

And the misery of FATA inhabitants doesn’t end there. An MPhil student from South Waziristan Agency recently wrote to a famous English daily, complaining that he was unable to find accommodation in Lahore—one of Pakistan’s largest cities—because of his origin. Students from FATA have to endure laborious procedures and documentary requirements when applying for university, a job or a visa.

With this pile of problems, the military and the government face an uphill task not only in achieving lasting peace in FATA but also in addressing major public, day-to-day concerns. Yet anti-state sentiment, if allowed to accumulate, could leave this volatile population at the behest of militant outfits capable of turning grievance to their advantage.

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