Pakistan's national assembly passed a historic constitutional amendment Thursday, paving the way to bringing the restive Federally Administered Tribal Areas, known as FATA, into the political mainstream, just a week before the end of its tenure. The bill will be taken up Friday in the Senate.
Until now, the area bordering Afghanistan was treated as a separate administrative unit with limited interference from the Pakistani government. It was loosely governed by local tribal law and British-era regulations. It also lagged behind the rest of the country in terms of infrastructure and basic facilities like schools and hospitals.
The region was home to various militant groups that had entrenched themselves over decades, starting with the Afghan war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
After U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan, many runaway members of al-Qaida, the Taliban and other militant groups were believed to have taken refuge in these tribal regions, using friendships and links they had developed during the "Soviet jihad" and subsequent Taliban rule.
"The tribal area was used as a special area to create Afghan resistance against the Soviet Union. ... Then the militant groups recognized the loopholes in the law and based themselves here," said political analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi.
Ever since the Taliban insurgency against the American and NATO presence in Afghanistan gained ground in the early 2000s, the United States and Afghanistan have repeatedly alleged that militants carrying out attacks in Afghanistan have havens in Pakistan, especially FATA.
Over the last 10 years, Pakistan's military has carried out multiple operations in the area and claims it has eliminated the havens.
"Our assessment is that the regular safe havens are no more there. Still, these people come and go to Afghanistan," Rizvi said. He said this was easy to do since the regular Taliban fighters, unlike the top leadership, were not easily identifiable. They could cross the border and live in the tribal area with a relative or in a refugee camp.
The militancy, and the military operations to clear it, created grievances among the local population, giving rise to a youth-driven movement for the rights of FATA called the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement.
A leader of the movement, Mohsin Dawar, said the merger on its own would not solve their grievances. The movement is calling for the formation of a truth and reconciliation commission to listen to the grievances of the local population and find a solution.
During his address to the assembly, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said the most urgent need of the area was to bring it to par with the rest of the country in terms of development. He called on the House to commit to provide FATA with almost $9 million a year for the next 10 years for development.
Efforts to change the status of the area had been ongoing for almost four years; however, the bill was delayed because of opposition from two of the government's allies in the parliament. They wanted FATA to become an independent province with its own provincial government, chief minister and governor.
The current bill calls for the area to be merged into the neighboring Khyberpakhtunkhwa (KPK) province.
The transition period will last several years.