The decade-long war on terror that brought death and destruction to the region enormously changed the socio-political, economic and cultural landscape of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). New actors emerged on the political stage of the area, replacing the ruling feudal elite. New institutions took the place of old ones.
During this period, Pakistan suffered great human and martial losses. On the international front, however, it earned the reputation of a country which plays foul. On the domestic front, the government lost the confidence of the public because of its alliance with the US-led coalition forces.
According to conservative estimates, Pakistan’s material losses are over $70 billion. At the same time, it lost close to 40,000 people. More than 70 journalists have been killed so far, over a dozen only in Fata. Mukarram Khan Atif, a local correspondent of the US-based Pashto radio channel, was the last victim.
Hundreds of schools have been blown up, depriving a large number of school-going kids of their basic right to education. A rough estimate put the figure at 458, with more than a hundred only in Bajaur Agency. More than 420 schools were blown up by the militants in Swat between 2007 and 2009. More than 1,500 tribal elders, maliks and peace committee members have been targeted and killed during the last few years. This has rendered completely ineffective the jirga, an assembly of elders that used to be an effective forum for dispute resolution. The targeted killing of influential tribal elders and maliks forced many more either to surrender or flee the area for safer places.
This provided ample opportunity to the militants to administer rough justice dictated by their whims. The institution of the jirga was replaced with the shura, an assembly made up of militants and the clergy who decide cases according to their own interpretation of the Sharia.
During this era, the country saw one of the world’s biggest mass displacements when Maulana Fazlullah, the leading figure in the Swat insurgency, challenged the writ of the government. The militia led by Maulana Fazlullah uprooted over 2.5 million people from the area in Swat back in 2009.
President Parvez Musharraf had to send 18,000 army soldiers to take on the Maulana and his brigade. The Maulana was ousted as a result of the successful military operation and fled to Afghanistan. He is reportedly busy attacking Pakistani installations from the Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan adjacent to the tribal areas of Pakistan.
The psychological effects of the war on terror could be gauged from the latest report of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which reveals that about four percent of the population suffers from severe psychiatric disorders in Fata and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
The report further says that a much larger portion of the population suffers from transient mental-health problems linked to the stress of living under conditions of conflict and violence. Roadside bombs and suicide bomb attacks have become a common phenomenon.
Data collected by the Fata Research Centre suggest that the security situation in Fata remained unstable during the second quarter of the current year, with 126 incidents reported. The quarterly security report (April-June) further says that persistent attacks by militants on security forces, civilians and educational institutions claimed the lives of 601 people, leaving 409 injured.
Due to the continuing suicide and roadside bomb attacks more and more people are developing depression. There is a marked increase in trauma-related psychological disorders. Pharmacists report higher sales of anti-depressants and tranquilisers. The war on terror brought a major shift in the socio-political life of the people of Fata. The cultural values of tolerance, cooperation and brotherhood have given way to violence and extremism. The poetry that used to promote peace, honour and dignity is now about praise for those who possess guns who can hit the target well.
This militant poetry has militarised the culture of the area. The jihadi literature that is penetrating the society offers good stuff for the young jihadi zealot. The prevailing sense of deprivations and frustration makes militancy even more appealing for the unemployed youth.
The lack of intolerance is reflected in movies where Kalashnikovs, firearms and bullets are presented as a sign of honour and bravery. Expressions like “topak zama qanoon” (the gun is my law) are reflective of people’s loss of confidence in the government and its law-enforcement agencies.
Consequently, the area known for its unique social values, rich political history, its customary laws and its strategic importance, lost its identity as a unified entity. The people of Fata receive the attention of the world community, thanks to the war on terror, but they do so at the cost of horrific violence and the slow demise of their cultural identity.
However, the war on terror proved to be a blessing in disguise. The mass displacements brought the people in contact with people living in the other parts of the country and received exposure to the outside world.
Their children got the opportunity to receive admissions in educational institutions in cities like Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore, Quetta and Karachi. Others had a chance to settle abroad. The people of Fata explored new avenues and opportunities for business ventures. The displacement encouraged the people of Fata to make opportunities out of the challenges they are faced with. The longstanding demand of the people of Fata that they receive equal rights as citizens of Pakistan ultimately resulted in the government making amendments to the colonial black law, the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR).
This followed the extension of Political Party’s Order, 2002. These are all signs of the rising political awareness of the people of this long-neglected area. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas have untapped hidden potentials. Given Fata’s strategic importance, the resource-rich area has a very bright future.
But for the achievement of this end, well-defined, well-designed and well-thought-out multi-pronged strategies should be devised to bring about a radical change in Fata’s society. This could be done by launching an organised programme for social and political institution-building, reconstruction of the economic base of the region and promotion of the cultural values of Fata.
We must have to protect our cultural heritage and promote the rich social norms, values, customs and traditions of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. However, this does not necessarily mean that we revert to the cultural practices which existed a century ago. We have to look forward and move in line with the international environment in order to meet the challenges ahead. These challenges are threatening the integrity, solidarity and very existence of this region.
The writer heads the Fata Research Centre in Islamabad. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org