PAKISTAN is taking steps to integrate its tribal areas, formally known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in northwest Pakistan.
The move comes amidst a crackdown on terrorism after at least 125 people fell victim to terrorist attacks throughout the country in recent weeks.
Last Thursday, the long-awaited reforms were approved by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Cabinet. If passed by the Parliament, a long process of developing and building up the security of the tribal areas will begin.
The process will span at least 10 years, but the merger time is set for five.
“Time has come the tribal people will be brought into [the] mainstream to end their sense of deprivation,” Sharif is quoted as saying to Radio Pakistan.
In November 2015, a Pakistani consultative committee was formed to discuss the stability of the tribal areas.
Terrorist organisations like the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda have long taken shelter throughout the region and used the area as a base to launch terror attacks within Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan.
Poverty in the region has provided these terrorist organisations with access to a pool of new and willing recruits, but many others have also suffered as a result.
Over 1.8 million people from the tribal areas have been displaced and many live within internally displaced person (IDP) camps in urban centres throughout the country.
The region has also been subjected to U.S. drone strikes, of which many Pakistanis are highly critical.
After launching an offensive in mid-2014, the Pakistani army was finally able to claim total control of the tribal areas in late 2016.
The tribal areas consist of seven tribal districts and six frontier regions, and have semi-autonomous status.
As many of the tribes span across Pakistan and Afghanistan, they were not properly integrated into Pakistan when the country achieved independence in 1947. For decades, the region has been underdeveloped and exploited by foreign powers.
Many argue the underlying reason for the merger is to garner political support for next year’s election. But one cannot deny the importance of integrating the tribal areas into the rest of Pakistan.
Amad Khan, from the Bajaur Agency in the tribal areas, told Al Jazeera, “This reform will bring schools, colleges and a proper health system in our areas accessible to us. Even though it took years to be acknowledged by our country, we are thankful it finally happened.”
The move comes at a time when tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan are growing. Both countries have exchanged tit-for-tat demands over handing over alleged terrorists. Two weeks ago, Pakistan temporarily closed the border.
Many Pakistanis have challenged the government’s hardline response to Afghanistan, arguing it ignores the home-grown factions causing terror throughout the country.
The reforms will see 20,000 police dispatched in the tribal areas and the end of the colonial era laws, known as the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), which allowed tribes or communities to be punished for the actions of an individual.
The push to integrate the tribal areas will ensure everyone enjoys the same rights throughout the country.