Pakistan is moving to merge its troubled tribal areas with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, in part to crack down on extremist groups that have sought refuge there, allegedly plotting and launching terror attacks elsewhere in the country and across the border in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Cabinet on Thursday approved the recommendations of a consultative committee that was formed in November 2015 to examine how to carve out a better future for the poverty-wracked Federally Administered Tribal Areas, depriving groups like the Taliban of support and recruitment grounds.
The plan still must be approved by Parliament. If enacted, it would set up a five-year merger process, a 10-year development plan and a major upgrade of the legal system, including an additional 20,000 police officers in the sprawling region where lawlessness has been rife under direct federal control.
“Time has come that the tribal people will be brought into [the] mainstream to end their sense of deprivation,” Radio Pakistan quoted Sharif as saying.
Merger a political move
While the merger is touted as critical to bring the area into the political mainstream and tackle the underlying causes of extremism by creating jobs and improving the local economy, some also see it as a political move by Sharif's government to win support of tribal people in next year's elections.
The recommendations were the result of discussions with 3,500 tribal leaders and elders, representatives of all political parties, traders, lawyers, youth and FATA Parliamentarians, then input from the National Security Committee. A media campaign resulted in 30,000 comments from the public.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have long accused each other of failing to crack down on extremist groups that have claimed responsibility for deadly attacks in both countries, particularly from strongholds near their border.
The attacks have intensified mistrust between the two neighbors, preventing them from cooperating effectively to fight Islamic State and other groups that seem intent on destabilizing both governments.
After a rash of recent terrorist bombings that killed more than 150 people in Pakistan over several days, the government ordered the border closed two weeks ago and gave Afghanistan a list of alleged terrorists that it wanted arrested and handed over immediately.