Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal areas (FATA), a narrow strip of mostly mountainous land between the Indus and the Afghan border, are home to fiercely independent Pushtun tribes that have resisted direct governance by a succession of empires and national government for many centuries. Constant threats of encroachment by larger outside forces have combined with tribal customs and Islam produce a unique sociology characterized by constant internecine rivalries, occasional unity in the face of an outside threat, a reactionary misogynist interpretation of Islam, hospitality to outsiders, provision of refuge for asylum seekers, and revenge against affronts to honor. Tribal society also kept defending centuries old tribal customs and traditions, and strongly resisted any outside influence on Pushtunwali (tribal code of life).
Over the past century and a half, the British in India and subsequently the successor government of Pakistan have evolved a modus vivendi with the tribes, allowing them near total internal autonomy in exchange for not attacking settled areas or openly defying the central government. The system operates through Political Agents (PA) appointed by the government to deal with tribal elders (maliks) and tribal councils (jirgas). The PA has enormous power to dispense or withhold subsidies and other favors to maliks, to enforce collective responsibilities of criminal offense, and to imprison tribesmen indefinitely without charge or trial. Such prolonged cruel political system in FATA has caused distortion in centuries old intact socio-cultural value system of indigenous tribes, created new social structures and weakened tribal institutions. It even restricted the evolutionary development process in FATA, which heavily contributed in the emergence of highly complex tribal society stranded in between tribal customary laws and colonial age system.
Infiltration of weapons and drugs during decades old Afghan war created further complexities in tribal society. Tribal areas became center of activities for religious forces to recruit and train people for launching guerilla operations against communist forces. Anti Communist drive in Afghanistan was given the name of Jihad, which gave rise to fundamentalism and religious extremism in all over FATA. At the same time, smuggling and drug business also started to dominate the local economy. Tribal society further destabilized, and went into another deformation phase. A deep sense of insecurity, violence, ecological breakdown, stagnant development process, internal colonialism, illegal trade, and strengthening of extremism were all those elements which influenced a lot in reshaping the attitude and behaviors of tribal population over the past few decades. Tribal population in a war of survival left over past ways of life and adopted new values of materialism, religious extremism and violence.
The September 11 attacks; the consequent military operations against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the escape of many of their leaders across the border into Pakistan have thrown a new spotlight on FATA, highlighting the need for change. The tribal tradition of hospitality and refuge have been at used by terrorists, operating in the guise of pious Muslims, who want to use FATA as a base area to undermine political and economic development in Afghanistan, and to plot new attacks around the world. This crisis, visited upon the Pushtun tribes by outside forces, cannot be fully resolved by military action.
There is a repeated argument from tribal intelligentsia that military action is not a solution to address current crisis. Challenging tribal freedom can lead to the destabilization of whole region. In order to ensure that FATA will not again become a haven for terrorism, it will be necessary for the Government of Pakistan, with help from outside donors, to effect a profound economic, political, and social transformation of the region. All of these changes, however, beneficial to the people of FATA and desired by most of them, will be resisted by strong vested interests—by maliks who see them as threatening their privileged status, by bureaucrats who would lose access to money and power, by clerics who now enjoy a monopoly of grass root political influence, and by many ordinary tribesmen who fear an erosion of their traditional culture.
We cannot deny a fact that current extremist attitude in tribal life is an outcome of Afghan Jihad, and century old repressive political system. First we need to analyze the latent causes behind the transformation of tribal society into a volatile and violent society. Why centuries old tribal institutions weakened and religious extremists filled the vacuum and taken over a dominant position in tribal society? Only a positive and constructive engagement with tribal society can again lead to the strengthening of moderate elements and gradual removal of extremism in tribal society. Stabilization in FATA is also crucially linked to restoring durable peace in neighboring Afghanistan.
In-depth understanding on prevailing attitudes and behaviors of tribal society is a pre-requisite for the introduction of realistic viable reforms, and initiating a long-term sustainable development process in FATA. How suppressive and unjust political and administrative system, and human security issues altered tribal way of life and enforced extreme changes in the behaviors of common tribal people? How many generations of local tribes underwent a continuous state of shock, despair and resentment? How a moderate tribal society with all richness of indigenous customs and traditions suffered from the invasion of alienated values, which almost destroyed the entire social and cultural strata of entire tribal society? Is there any link in between increased forms of gender discrimination and prolonged sense of insecurity in FATA? Why tribal society started to believe so strongly on the rule of “might is right”. We must search out answers to all these questions to re-orientate tribal society from extremism to a moderate way of life. Establishing a broken link with rapidly diluting tribal culture and values is one realistic way to put breaks on rising violence in tribal areas, and encourage behavioral change process in tribal society towards peace, harmony and justice.