Manifold challenges lie ahead after FATA merger with KPK – Rustam Shah

Pakistan’s distinguished civil servant who served as Chief Secretary KP, Ambassador to Afghanistan, Secretary Interior & Political Agent Waziristan & Khyber Agency, grapples with the real challenges of “Mainstreaming”.


At long last Pakistan’s tribal areas have finally been incorporated as an integral part of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The area will lose its separate identity – retained after independence from the British – and will now be administered under the normal law of the land. This phenomenal development will have far-reaching implications for the people of the region.

FATA: A Historical Overview

The tribes have a long and troubled history. The treacherous and forbidding mountainous topography has been a nightmare since the times they began to settle in the area; arriving from parts of modern Afghanistan and Central Asia. Locked up in inhospitable terrain, they have lived in isolation which sometimes meant peace but more often socially exiled them.

Victims of their own location and geography, these people have suffered repeatedly, throughout history, from the impact of countless marauding expeditions. They have been attacked, coerced and reconciled to the conquerors’ whims and ambitions as the pathway of brutal invasions from the West and Central Asia led into South Asia through these areas.

The Pass and the tribal areas have seen and borne the footprints of the warriors from Central and West Asia for hundreds of years – incursions that have left many scars on the rugged landscape of the area.

Such infiltration resulted in bloody clashes and destruction of the infrastructure, followed by the tribes either acquiescing in the new scheme of things or resorting to harassing and attacking the ‘enemy’ from their hideouts in the mountains.

The historical strategic importance of the Khyber Pass is now lost to the internet generations; but, it has seen the army columns of Alexander the Great moving defiantly through this ancient route while being attacked and sniped at by the wild tribes who lived there.

According to Paddy Docherty, the author of ‘The Khyber Pass’, “the Khyber Pass stood alongside the Straits of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal as one of the strategic keys that locked up the world before the age of flight”. Indeed the pass is more than just a border, more than a line on a map; it is a frontier, an ancient zone of contested ground, long disputed and never entirely at peace.

Read more: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly passes landmark FATA bill with a two-third majority

No wonder the Pass and the tribal areas have seen and borne the footprints of the warriors from Central and West Asia for hundreds of years – incursions that have left many scars on the rugged landscape of the area. The Kushans, Sasanian Persians, White Huns and the military forays of Genghis Khan and Timur followed through the tribal areas.

Then came the Muslim rule and a new wave of Islamic conquests of parts of India followed. During the Mughal rule of India the tribes maintained their distinct identity as their area was largely left to itself for governance.

Sovereigns from the east or west showed little interest in them because the area generated no resources, the rulers in Kabul, by and large, did not make any attempt to formally subjugate these tribes – other than pillage and plunder (whatever could be salvaged, used and/or abused). The Durrani kingdom showed little interest in the area, apart from guarantees for the safe passage of their military convoys.

Throughout 17th to the 19th centuries, there were frequent skirmishes with armies passing through the tribal areas. As a consequence, many tribesmen left and settled across India, from Peshawar to Bengal. During the Sikh period, the tribal areas, except for Khyber Pass, were virtually autonomous.

The primary duty of the Frontier Corps or Scouts – as they were locally called – was to protect the border and ensure peace internally in areas of their jurisdiction. The force was meant to impose the writ of the Government.

In the mid-nineteenth century when the British subdued the Sikhs, the whole of former Frontier or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, came under the colonial rule. It was then that the British decided to gradually seize control of these vital passes in the tribal areas which would give them a commanding position in the face of any attack from the west.

The British having dug in the Frontier area were always fearful of an Afghan backlash, realizing that the Frontier and the tribal areas were once part of the Durrani Empire. The first Afghan war, from 1839 to 1842, ensured victory for the British, but disaster soon followed and a whole garrison of some 12000 soldiers, man to man, was slaughtered; a defeat later avenged by the British.

The second and third Afghan wars of 1878 and 1919 sought to consolidate the British Empire and eliminate any possibility of a Russian military intervention that could use Afghanistan as a springboard for attack on British India.

It is in this context, when the British extended their control to the Frontier region, around the 1850s, that they began to consider mechanisms which would ensure peace and stability in the tribal region on the one hand and commit the tribes to a permanent bond and affiliation to British India on the other.

The British Solution for FATA

The British rulers gave careful thought on how to deal with the tribes; keeping in mind their norms and traditions, along with the dictates of safeguarding and promoting British colonial interests. They devised an indirect system of administration that would protect the British government’s vital strategic interests.

Such a system would be based upon the code of life that was prevalent in the tribal area, it would require minimum government interference in their affairs and at the same time would be a bulwark against any military assault from the west. This strategy would be implemented by:

  • Creating tribal administrative units for better management of the area;
  • Entering into treaties with tribes in order to win their loyalty and support;
  • Making strategic inroads by extending means of communication;
  • Sanctioning allowances for elders of the tribes for their good conduct;
  • Recruiting Khasadars from the tribes so as to benefit the people economically;
  • Codifying the existing customs and continuing or rationalizing the system of collective responsibility;
  • And creating an Administrator to be known as ‘Political Agent’ who would have wide-ranging powers to handle and resolve the problems and disputes of the people within the framework of the customs and traditions of the tribes.

This system of an indirect administration worked astonishingly well. The proof of pudding is in the eating; from the late 18th century to the end of the British rule, there were only three major insurrections in the tribal area against colonial rule: the Mullah Pawinda rebellion in the late 19th century in South Waziristan, Haji Turangzai’s movement in Mohmand during the early twentieth century and Faqir Ippi’s attacks against the British installations in 1930s and 40s before partition.

The British administration very wisely divided the tribal area into two distinct parts: the Administered area and the Tribal territory or TT. The Administered area was accessible by road, where the administration established government institutions like schools, hospitals and where positions for Khasadars were created to ensure security.

Read more: FATA’s merger into KPK is not a guarantee of socio-economic prosperity

This was the portion of the tribal area where the government writ was fully extended and enforced, hence crimes would be given attention and those guilty would be punished swiftly and effectively. Disputes, both civil and criminal, would be resolved in accordance with the relevant provisions of law that would include arbitration through a council of elders or Jirga.

The TT or tribal territory was left to itself as far as dispute resolution mechanisms were concerned. But the government would not tolerate or acquiesce in a situation where there was a plot or conspiracy being hatched in the TT that could pose a potential threat to the administration. As a measure of the government’s determination to enforce its writ within the tribal area to provide security and protection against any cross border attacks.

It was decided to induct a well-trained and well-equipped force of what was called the Frontier Corps. The Frontier Corps or FC was deployed all over the Administered area up to the border with Afghanistan. The force comprised of officers from the British Army along with locally recruited and trained soldiers.


The primary duty of the Frontier Corps or Scouts – as they were locally called – was to protect the border and ensure peace internally in areas of their jurisdiction. The force was meant to impose the writ of the Government and in doing so it was placed under the administrative control of the Political Agent. Each tribal agency had its own FC force. Khyber Rifles was the first militia created to provide security and protection to the Khyber Pass.

Then came Kurram Militia (Kurram Agency), followed by the creation of South Waziristan Scouts or SWS and Tochi Scouts for the North Waziristan Agency. Alongside the Frontier Corps, there were in some cases military units that operated in conjunction with the Scouts when the need for a major operation would arise.

During the British rule, there were just four tribal Agencies, i.e. Khyber, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan, and about four FRS or Frontier Regions that were attached to the settled districts. The system delivered because it did not interfere with the tribal hierarchies or their traditions.

The British having dug in the Frontier area were always fearful of an Afghan backlash, realizing that the Frontier and the tribal areas were once part of the Durrani Empire.

Virtues of the Tribal Jirga System

After Partition in 1947, for a short period, the tribal area remained in a virtually autonomous position because it had not been fully inherited by the new state of Pakistan, and all the while, the Afghan Government staked its claim over the tribal areas. In April 1948, the Quaid e Azam visited Peshawar and met with a representative Jirga of all tribes.

He invited the elders to formally become part of the new state of Pakistan. He pledged to the tribes that Pakistan would not interfere in any way with the customs, traditions or the system of governance of the people of the tribal area. The Representative Jirga accepted the offer and the tribal areas became an integral part of the new state while retaining their own systems.

Mr. Jinnah announced the withdrawal of the Army from the tribal areas as a gesture of goodwill to the tribes. To date, the Pakistani Government maintained the same policy. There were robust developmental initiatives for the area in the early 1970’s as new roads, colleges, electricity transmission lines, irrigation schemes and hospitals were set up all over the region.

Read more: Sherpao, ‘the Protector of Pakhtun Rights’ stresses on development of FATA

New lungi (allowances) were created and more scholarships for tribal students were sanctioned. Despite these considerable efforts at the socio-economic uplift of the area, over the years, there was an overall a lack of development in the region which, contrary to those who blame the backwardness of the area to the governance or administrative systems, is not attributable to the system in the tribal area; the system never came in the way of building roads, hospitals, tube wells, power lines, etc.

But, a number of factors intervened to reduce the impact of such policy initiatives. First, the Government investment was confined only to the administered area, which left out the TT. Second, there was always the problem of lack of resources. Third, successive governments never really took the area seriously in terms of monitoring the pace and the quality of the developmental schemes that were launched in the tribal areas.

Similarly, there are myths about the system of collective responsibility and the unrestrained powers of the Political Agent, which need clarification. The system of collective responsibility of a section of a tribe was not the invention of the British. The colonial British Administration only codified what was already an accepted norm in the tribal area.


Given there was no police force or representatives of the administration in the remote areas, it was found expedient to make a sub-section of a tribe responsible for the criminal conduct of its members. This had the following merits:

1-it forced individuals to think about the consequences of committing crimes since their family, extended family or clan would have to suffer for this;

2- if the concerned group failed to produce the accused before the political Administration, a collective fine would be imposed and paid as compensation to the victim or his family;

3-If the accused was found to have run away to the settled area; he would be arrested through non-bailable warrants issued by the Political Agent in his capacity as District Magistrate under CrPC.

No one could be spared because accountability and retribution was swift. This explains why the crime rate in the tribal area was not even a fraction of the crime rate in the settled areas. The system was inexpensive; lawyers were not needed; the time period for disposal, conviction or settlement was only a few weeks, in very rare cases would it exceed three months.

By and large, people lived contentedly because the tribe would come to the help of members stricken by poverty, sickness or some disaster. Everybody had a feeling of being owned by a super-entity, i.e. his/her tribe. Suicide was unknown, murders were few and far between; rapes, dacoits and robberies were non-existent.

Accountability and retribution was swift. This explains why the crime rate in the tribal area was not even a fraction of the crime rate in the settled areas.

Granted, the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) system was prone to abuses, but it ensured quick and cheap justice and accountability. Under the FCR, no one would escape punishment if he was guilty and no one would be punished if he was innocent.

However, over the years there are reports of Jirga members being bribed and in other cases coming under the pressure of the parties concerned. There was obviously a need to take measures to prevent abuse of power and misuse of authority. Corruption by Jirga members had to be stopped.

A reappraisal, taking into account the ground realities, was necessary. But to throw out the whole system was unwarranted it is as throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The majority of the chinks in the system started as the office of the Political Agent became politicized.

Read more: Tribes protest in Islamabad: demand elections in FATA along with KP;…

Problem with the new FATA Reforms

The Political Agent who owes his appointment to a certain lobby acts to promote his and the lobby’s interests, who should one blame? On the other hand, if an officer of integrity, competence and knowledge of the area and people is appointed and given a wider mandate with built-in controls and monitoring, he delivers under the most adverse conditions.

The objective in principle should be to make changes in the system; in order to make it more responsive, juster and more accountable, which is already happening. But to dismantle the current system and impose one that does not accord with the values of the tribesmen, is incompatible with their traditions and does not deliver quick justice is no solution.

The tribesmen know that the system in Pakistan does not ensure accountability. In Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, people get killed every day, crores of rupees have been extracted daily for nearly thirty years, without any conviction and no one going to the gallows.

To dismantle the current system and impose one that does not accord with the values of the tribesmen, is incompatible with their traditions and does not deliver quick justice is highly unfair.

Across the country, cases linger on for years with lawyers being the principal beneficiaries. People in the tribal area cannot afford this luxury. As a consequence, when the principle of collective responsibility is removed, there is a good likelihood that the crime rate will soar, and disillusionment and despondency will take hold.

Furthermore, land in the tribal area is owned collectively; there are no individual landholdings. With the implementation of the new system, without collective ownership disputes would arise leading to long feuds and crimes. Because land settlement has not yet taken place in the tribal areas (except for a small segment of Kurram), countless disputes would arise over land, houses, forests, grazing areas, timber, marble and over water, both for drinking and for irrigation.

On one hand there will be a tremendous rise in the disputes over property, and on the other hand, there would be no police to intervene when individuals take law into their own hands. There would be chaos, frustration and a dangerous polarization. Would such a scenario be viewed favourably by anyone within or outside the tribal area?

Mainstreaming should not be about extending the police and the highly erratic legal system to the tribal areas. Across the world, there is more than one system in countries – China, Russia, US, UK, Canada, Italy, Germany and many countries in Africa, Australia and Asia including India.

In fact, mainstreaming of the tribal areas needs rather to focus on giving them quality education, providing safe drinking water, establishing health clinics, providing housing colonies, extending irrigation schemes, tapping into the enormous mineral wealth, exploring, exploiting the hidden mineral resources, creating economic opportunities, establishing parks, promoting sports activities, creating a conducive environment for children to grow, establishing skill development institutes for the large number of adult unemployed population. Sadly, it appears that we have missed the bus yet again.

Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist in FATA and refugee affairs. He has served as the former Chief Secretary of KP, Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan and Commissioner for Afghan Refugees. Mohmand is currently a member of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and a member of the Pakhtunkhwa Advisory Committee which advises the provincial government on development and planning.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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