By Afrasiab Khattak
President Awami National Party Pakhtunkhwa
Peace Envoy Government of Pakhtunkhwa

IT is hardly an exaggeration that the security of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the entire region and indeed that of the whole world will be defined by developments in Fata over the next few months. Different scenarios are being painted by military strategists and political experts.

Al Qaeda, after regrouping in the militant sanctuaries of the area, is acquiring the capacity to repeat attacks in North America or Europe similar to those carried out in 2001 in the US.

If reports about the exchanges between Pakistan and the US at the highest level are anything to go by it is pretty clear that the US will retaliate against Pakistan, probably even more severely than it did against the Taliban-dominated Afghanistan. Similarly the use of these militant sanctuaries for cross-border fighting is so large in scale (in fact all the six political agencies bordering Afghanistan are being used) that denial in this regard is no longer plausible.

The federal government has to either admit defeat or muster the political will to resolve the problem, or else justify the existence of militant sanctuaries by explaining their usefulness to the national interest. We have run out of time and this decision cannot be delayed any more as there are no takers of the denial line.

As if this were not enough, armed lashkars (armies) from militant sanctuaries in Fata are poised to penetrate/invade the contiguous settled districts. The events in Hangu some three weeks back are a case in point. The Hangu police arrested four Taliban commanders from a car that also contained weapons, explosive material and manuals for making bombs in a place called Doaba not far away from the Orakzai Agency border.

Hundreds of Taliban surrounded the Doaba police station and demanded the commanders’ release. They also blocked the Hangu-Kurram highway. During this confrontation the Frontier Constabulary was ambushed near Zargari village and 16 security personnel were killed. Subsequently the army was called in to launch a military operation in Hangu. This action was not just in retaliation for the murder of 16 FC men but also came in view of the threat of attack by four to five thousand Taliban from Orakzai and Kurram agencies.

By now the said military operation has been completed and the targets achieved to the extent that the Taliban have been chased out of Hangu. Nevertheless, they have fled to Orakzai Agency where they are regrouping and preparing for future attacks.

The NWFP (Pakhtunkhwa) government is in a quandary. It has to call in the army whenever armed lashkars threaten to overrun a district as the police force simply does not have the capacity to fight an ever-expanding insurgency.

After Swat the army has also been deployed in Hangu. In view of the militant sanctuaries situated nearby, the army cannot be withdrawn in the near future. Imagine if the story is repeated in other vulnerable districts. Will the army also have to be deployed in all these other districts? Will such measures not bring the existence of the civilian provincial government into question?

Is it not amazing that in spite of such high stakes the presidency that has a monopoly over governance in Fata seems to show no anxiety over the prevailing situation? It is continuing with the policy of keeping Fata a black hole where terrorist groups from across the globe run their bases. It is still a no-go area for the media and civil society, and so far there is no corrective measure or policy change in sight. So much so that we have failed to take even the most preliminary step of extending the Political Parties Act to Fata.

It is only natural that we are perturbed when attacks are launched from across the border. But should we not be equally sensitive to the loss of our sovereignty over Fata to militant groups? Strangely enough we do not seem to be bothered about the militants’ total control of Fata. When the international media carries reports about this situation we dismiss them as ‘enemy’ propaganda against Pakistan. We have failed to grasp the fact that in the post-cold war world there is a universal consensus about two things. One, that all assault weapons that can be used for launching a war cannot be allowed to be kept in private possession. Two, that no state will allow the use of its soil by non-state players against another state. The entire world is astounded by our fixation with the cold war mode. We have developed an incredible capacity to live in unreality. This is indeed dangerous for any state system but it can be catastrophic for a state dancing in a minefield.

Where does all this leave the people of Fata? They are victims and not perpetrators as some people would like us to believe. They are in fact in triple jeopardy. Firstly they are groaning under the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) of 1901. They have no access to the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan since they are not justiciable outside of the jurisdiction of the higher judiciary.

Secondly the tribal belt has almost been occupied by foreign and local militant organisations that are better equipped, better trained and better financed than the local population. More than 160 tribal leaders have been killed by terrorists in North and South Waziristan who operate with total impunity. Today’s Fata is not dissimilar to the Taliban and Al Qaeda controlled Afghanistan before 9/11.

Thirdly, the people of Fata get caught in the crossfire between militants and security forces from both sides of the Durand Line. The so-called collateral damage has seen a cancerous growth in Fata. The people of Fata have lost the support and protection of the state. They have no access to the media, courts and hospitals or to humanitarian assistance. The only intervention by state players takes place through their armies and air forces in which people of the tribal area are mostly on the receiving end.

For any informed and sensitive Pakistani, the situation in the tribal area is the top-most priority when it comes to policy formation and implementation. We must realise that the question of dismantling militant sanctuaries in Fata and taking short-term and long-term measures to open up the area and integrate it with the rest of the country needs urgent national attention if we are to avoid the impending catastrophe.