Pakistan last week signed legislation that integrates the semi-autonomous tribal region, previously known as the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), into Pakistan’s governing structure.
The United States has said this region provides safe havens to the militants who launch attacks by crossing into Afghanistan, where close to 14,000 U.S. troops are stationed.
The seven tribal agencies, which have struggled with terrorism and lawlessness for decades, have now become part of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and will be governed under an interim law until the merger is finalized, according to the legislation.
Impact on war on terror
While Afghan-Pakistan regional experts have largely lauded the decision, some have questioned its impact on the war against terror.
Jahangir Khattak, a New York-based journalist and security expert, told VOA there should be no immediate, dramatic impact, because it will take time to place FATA under civilian control.
“It all depends on how quickly people are given representation in Pakistan’s national and regional assemblies. There are a lot of layers of administrative changes that have to happen,” Khattak told VOA. “And all these changes will impact the war on terror in that area.”
Dr. Muhammad Taqi, a U.S.-based defense analyst and expert on Pakistan, said the merger will help to repay to the tribesmen deprived of their fundamental rights and will also heal some wounds in the wake of the war on terror.
“Pakistan owes a due apology to tribesmen who were not only backward in terms of life and civil liberty but also on the human level,” Taqi said. “In 1973 and 1974, the Afghan jihadis were brought to South Waziristan by the Pakistani establishment and we know what happened here after 9/11.”
After U.S.-led forces dismantled the Taliban government in Kabul, several terror groups sought refuge in the tribal belt that shares a long and porous border with Afghanistan.
In the past decade, Pakistan’s military has launched multiple operations in the restive tribal belt, aiming to crush militant hideouts and Taliban strongholds.
Contrary to Pakistan’s claims, both the U.S. and Afghanistan allege that Pakistan’s tribal areas have served as a training facility for militants linked to the Haqqani network, which has been involved in waging deadly attacks in Afghanistan.
Pakistan denies sheltering any terrorist groups and points to the operations it has launched against militants.
Since 2004, the U.S. has carried out numerous drone attacks inside Pakistani territory, targeting Haqqani network militants.
Pakistan has condemned these airstrikes, saying they violate the country’s sovereignty. Islambad also denies any organized presence of the Haqqani network in the territory.
The United States has used drone strikes to target al-Qaida militants, Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network over the past decade. In 2016, a U.S. drone strike carried out in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province killed Taliban key leader Mullah Mansoor.
According to estimates published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the U.S. had launched 430 drone attacks in Pakistan from June 2004 through January 2018.
Retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, Pakistan’s leading defense and security expert, believes with mainstreaming of the tribal region, Pakistan’s reaction to drone strikes will be even stronger.
“With this merger, hopefully, there will be a substantial decrease in drone strikes,” Masood said. “The reaction of local people will also count, which I assume, will be quite negative. The U.S. will also not want to deteriorate its relations with Pakistan any further.”
The relationship between Pakistan and the United States has been strained. In August 2017, while announcing his South Asia strategy, U.S. President Donald Trump accused Pakistan of harboring militants and providing safe havens in the country.
Pakistan denied the U.S. allegations, maintaining it has paid a heavy price in the war against terror and destroyed militants indiscriminately.
Regional experts also stressed that the emergence of Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), a movement launched by ethnic Pashtuns of the tribal region in recent months, highlighted the atrocities faced by the tribesmen nationally and globally.
“Let’s not forget the voices raised by PTM. It has helped to raise awareness about the problems a common man is facing in the tribal region. With political, legal, administrative and development mainstreaming, the security and economic situation will definitely improve,” Taqi said.