Next year’s anticipated departure of foreign troops from Afghanistan is focusing new attention on Pakistan’s volatile border region known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The region has long been outside state control, and observers worry it could become an “epicenter of international terrorism” if the militant groups based there are left unchecked after foreign troops leave Afghanistan.
With a population of around five million, the semiautonomous FATA region of Pakistan mostly consists of seven tribal districts. All but one border Afghanistan.
The lawless territory has long been a refuge for fugitives and criminal gangs involved in kidnapping, trafficking drugs and weapons. In the 1980s, it served as a training ground for radicalized Afghan and Arab fighters who participated in the U.S.-funded insurgency against the Soviet occupation.
That fundamentally changed the region, said author Ahmed Rashid.
“In the 1980s FATA was a huge dumping ground for weapons and ammunition for the Mujahideen both by the CIA and the ISI. Thousands of miles of roads were built right up to the Afghan border so that these arms and ammunitions could be dumped right on the border and then mule backs could take them further in the country to fight the Soviets,” said Rashid.
In the years that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, critics said Pakistan’s spy agency continued to assist groups based in the region to exert influence in Afghanistan. Rashid said the region remains a key base for the Afghan insurgency to this day.
“In 2003 and 2004, the Afghan Taliban were re-launched in Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan. FATA played a huge role in that re-launch, a great many of the Afghan Taliban were based in FATA," said Rashid.
The United States and Afghanistan have long said FATA is used by militants for deadly cross-border raids on U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s army has launched offensives over the years against some groups in parts of the tribal region, but it has not carried out a broad offensive as sought by Afghanistan and the United States. Instead, Washington has targeted militants in the region through drone strikes, a policy that has created deep resentment in much of Pakistan.
Pakistani authorities admit that the region harbors militants who have carried out attacks killing thousands in Pakistan. But Abdul Qadir Baloch, Federal Minister for States and Frontier Regions, said there are steep challenges to bringing the region under state control.
“There have been large scale migrations and displacements [in FATA]. There has been a massive radicalization of the [tribal] society, large-scale target killings have been taking place, writ of the government has been weakened beyond almost repair and there have been military operations. The result of this has been the disruption of the existing social fabric of FATA,” explained Baloch.
Successive governments in Pakistan have often preferred to keep the status quo in FATA instead of taking a chance on uncertain military or political strategies that face steep challenges.
Yousaf Rahim, FATA’s Additional Director General Projects, said there are still longstanding economic and social problems in FATA that will make any intervention difficult.
“Sixty percent of the population in FATA is below the poverty line, which makes it pretty difficult to intervene in FATA. The economic activity, which we have in FATA at the moment, I would say, is negligible and that primarily gives rise to unemployment and the issues affiliated with that. We have a low literacy rate of around 17 percent," said Rahim.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has repeatedly described the militancy originating from FATA as a threat to Pakistan. His administration is reaching out to the Taliban with peace talks, but it also has not ruled out a broader military offensive.
American scholar Marvin Weinbaum said terrorists operating in FATA pose threats to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, making them a global danger.
“The international community is sincerely concerned about for one thing Pakistan as a custodian of its nuclear assets and that to the extent that terrorism is enabled in Pakistan that it will make the nuclear assets vulnerable to extremist groups,” said Weinbaum.
Pakistani officials insist the nuclear weapons are secure from militants, but Weinbaum argued that the departure of international forces in Afghanistan removes a powerful check on the militant groups in the region, making them a deadlier threat.
The country’s ruling political parties are making new efforts to reassert control over FATA, possibly by changing the British colonial laws that still govern the region. Surveys indicate a majority of people favor making it a province like the rest of Pakistan, which could lead to the creation of police forces and courts to adjudicate disputes.