The Pakistan government on Thursday approved in principle a move to merge the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), long known as a base for militant groups such as the Haqqani Network, with adjoining Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
A committee formed by the government to suggest ways for developing seven semi-autonomous tribal agencies had recommended the merger of the troubled region.
Critics condemned the move, describing it as short-sighted and impractical, but those who support the decision say it will bring economic empowerment to a neglected area.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who chaired a meeting of the cabinet that approved the move, said the people of Fata, Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir will be given their due rights. “The cabinet accords in-principle approval to the recommendations of the Fata reforms committee,” said a statement from the Prime Minister’s House.
Under the plan, the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), a draconian colonial era law whereby an entire tribe or community could be punished for crimes committed by an individual, will be replaced. The constitution will be amended to allow residents of Fata to elect representatives to the provincial assembly.
The merger would be completed over five years and funds will be allocated for a 10-year development package for the region. Courts will be set up and infrastructure will be created in the region.
The much talked about Fata reforms package was pulled at the last minute from a cabinet meeting in February. It was earlier pulled out in December, when the cabinet deferred the issue on the ground that a broader consensus was needed.
Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party has supported the merger of Fata with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, other parties insisted that any merger should follow a referendum in the region.
Analyst Pervez Tahir described the merger as a good idea. “Political integration should happen politically, not through transitional development packages. Whatever resources are earmarked in the name of fiscal equalisation should be at the disposal of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa,” he said.
He noted that the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa assembly had already voted for the merger. “This is the way to fulfill the rising expectations of the youth, businessmen and educated classes. Most political parties also support this route.”
But there are others, such as former bureaucrat Rustam Shah Mohmand, who disagree. “A group of parliamentarians who won their seats by just a handful of votes are now claiming to have a mandate to change the status of the tribal areas. That is a ludicrous assertion,” he said.
“Because firstly these elected members do not live in the tribal areas. Secondly, having been returned to Parliament by winning just a couple of thousand of votes, can they have an authority to change the complexion of the area?”
Some Fata residents have said they will fight the merger because it impinges on their independence.
Since colonial times, the area has remained largely independent and the only government presence has been an agent for each of the seven agencies who acted as a liaison between the federal government and tribal committees that ran the region. All that is about to change and this worries many.