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Mainstreaming of Pashtun Tribal Areas: Can Pakistan Achieve its Long Overdue Ambitions?

Over the last two decades, the Pakistan Pakistan (TTP). The collateral damage in these operations incled destruction of the social structure and economy of the Pashtuns. More than 80,000 people were killed and 6 million driven out of their homes over the months and years.[i] Eventually common people from the region started demanding justice and their political rights, from the military leadership who held authority.

Traditionally, the Pakistan Army has never tolerated accusations of any wrongdoings and deflected them on to political leadership. The country is in socio-economic despair because of this division of authority and responsibility. This has created a systemic loophole and resulted in unaccountability.

However, this time, the allegation by Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) has ruffled the feathers of military leadership. On April 29, 2019 in a press conference, then Director General  Inter Services Public Relations Pakistan (DG ISPR) Maj Gen Asif Gafoor gave a ‘final warning’ to the leaders of PTM.[ii] He also tried to allege linkages between PTM and various Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies, as well as put the onus on political leadership to settle this issue.

Birth of PTM, is a result of unifying surge in collective and self-conscious Pashtun national identity. The movement is gaining support from Afghanistan) with Khyber Paktoonkhwa (KP) and rise of PTM. These developments will have immediate and long-term implications on the security and political stability of Pakistan and the region   

Crisis turned into opportunity

Pakistan had been lacking firm and defined geographical boundaries since 1947. Opposition to the Durand line was the principal reason that Afghanistan cast its vote against Pakistan’s admission to the United Nations in 1947. After the Independence of Bangladesh in 1971, the primary concern of Pakistan was to achieve national integration by eliminating separatist movements from Baluchistan, Sindh, the former North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and FATA.[iii]

Due to its geopolitical location, difficult terrain and radically different social structure, tribal areas were complicated to handle. The political and military leadership of Pakistan implemented their policies using all available tools to strengthen and formalise its disputed border with Afghanistan. In 2016, Pakistan disclosed its plans of hardening 2,500 kms of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border by building gates to regulate cross border traffic. In February 2017, it began fencing the border, which cost USD 532 million.[iv] Local tribes fiercely opposed this new development.[v] 2017 was also the year of the worst border clashes between the Pakistani and Afghan armies, as they were also opposing these actions, given that the border between the two countries is not demarcated in many locations.[vi] The efficacy of these efforts would be difficult to determine as there were reports that in some areas fencing had been removed by the locals and sold in markets.

The governance reforms were the most difficult – as these addressed multiple aspects such as political, institutional, justice, counter radicalisation, fostering reconciliation and social cohesion. The first serious effort to introduce reforms in FATA was made by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1976 when he formed a Committee under Maj. Gen. Naseerullah Babar to draft a framework to merge FATA with NWFP.[vii] The issue remained floating till the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet forces in 1979, followed by the US support to the Mujahideen, routed through Pakistan. In the following four decades, Pakistan continued to evolve its policies towards FATA by aligning them to major geopolitical events in the region, to achieve the goal of integration of tribal regions into ‘mainstream’ Pakistan and end the Durand Line issue.

Under Zia-ul-Haq, FATA was used as a strategic space which provided Pakistan plausible deniability in the Afghan Jihad Omar, that if the Taliban recognised the Durand Line as an International Border “all problems of the (Taliban) would be resolved”. Mullah Omar refused the offer and called Babur a traitor as he was himself a Pashtun.[viii] The reason was that the then Afghan leadership of Taliban was sympathetic towards the Pashtun cause.

Post 9/11, the retreating Taliban, and other extremist organisations including East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Al-Qaeda (AQ) became more dependent on Pakistan for safe havens. Pashtun Talibs merged into refugee camps and villages located in different parts of KP, FATA and Baluchistan. Foreign terrorists initially settled down in South Waziristan and later expanded their support base among local tribes through money and marriages.[ix]

In February 2002, the Pakistan army launched its first operation against some of these extremist elements, followed by nine more between 2007-2019. Initial operations were conducted reluctantly, under increasing US pressure to target Al-Qaeda and its protectorate – the Afghan Taliban. Operations launched post 2006 were mostly to protect the state from the TTP and the havoc they created.[x] Security forces demanded that tribal leaders surrender the terrorists who were hiding in their areas. Elders who followed government orders were assassinated by terrorists[xi] and the ones who opposed such orders were killed by security forces. A closer look at these events suggests that there was something wrong with Pakistan’s counter-terrorism approach, as the region was still seen as a safe haven for terrorism.[xii] The report published by FATA secretariat in 2015 mentioned,

the ‘clear, hold and build’ security strategy for the region aimed to prevent such a negative trend by incorporating the fourth principle of ‘return to civilian administration’. Unfortunately, even today the doctrine lacks this vital component….”.[xiii]

The Pakistan army never had any intention to withdraw forces from the region. In fact, they used this opportunity by initially allowing ethnic Pashtuns to support Taliban because “the Taliban was both a symbol of Islamic conservatism as well as a reflection of Pashtun chauvinism”.[xiv] These events changed the social structure resulting in traditional Pashtun culture (Pashtunwali) being replaced with sharia. Eventually, this converted traditional tribal nationalism into an extremist pan-Islamism. The Afghan Taliban unknowingly compromised Pashtun nationalism, whereas TTP destroyed Pashtun culture.

Perfection in opportunism: An Attempt to solve a century old problem of Governance in Tribal Agencies

In November 2015, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif formed a FATA Reforms Committee under the chairmanship of Mr. Sartaj Aziz to propose a concrete way forward for the so-called political mainstreaming of tribal areas. While referring to the delay in this process Mr. Aziz in his opinion piece wrote,

 “Political mainstreaming of [FATA] would be a very complex process because it would also involve legal, administrative and security mainstreaming. Equally important would be the sequencing of these reforms and their complementarity in terms of timing and scale. Various attempts for reforms in the past 40 years, though useful, did not bring about a fundamental mainstreaming of [FATA] because these elements were missing.”

The committee submitted a final report in August 2016. This report accepted the fact that post 2001 ‘insurgents’ have used FATA to train and recruit fighters, hence, under the National Action Plan (NAP), the government intended to transform FATA into a region ‘free of war’[xv] and could no longer be retained as a “buffer against foreign aggression.” The same report says that “Weak governance structure in FATA was further dented by weakening state of traditional governance structure due to killing of local Elders and Maliks by militants”. This may have severed ancestral relations between the Pashtun societies divided by the Durand line. However, the rise of PTM and the support it is getting from Afghanistan indicates that it has not eradicated Pashtun nationalism entirely.

The tribals who had never entertained any social contract with the State, were reduced to internally displaced persons (IDPs) through several military operations, only to return to new socio-political realities they were coerced intost. But above all, according to Mr Aziz, initiating the process of merger is “‘a major strategic undertaking’ to extend the provincial boundary right up to the international border (Durand Line) with Afghanistan, and require a careful realignment of the security infrastructure”.[xvi] Border fencing, building transit points and permanent security posts are a vital part of this infrastructure.

Finally, in May 2018 the National Assembly passed the “Constitution (Thirty-First Amendment) Act, 2018”. This bill was set to merge FATA, consisting of seven agencies and six frontier regions with Khyber Paktoonkhwa (KP) and “to bring the people of Tribal Areas in the mainstream”. It has also brought changes in the administrative structure of the legislative and judiciary organs of Central and Provincial Governments.[xvii] On May 28, 2018, President of Pakistan – Mamnoon Hussain signed the FATA Interim Governance Regulation Act 2018. This regulation was a set of interim rules which will be in force until complete integration of FATA with KP is concluded. Despite constant confrontations between civil and military establishments during the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) government, all political parties, bureaucracy, and Army remained on-board to resolve this matter, except the Jaamat Ulema-e-Fazl and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party.[xviii] There was no major opposition by Pashtuns from both sides of the Durand Line, Taliban or any other state or non-state actors on this move. Pakistan was looking forward to settling this issue once and for all, but they had to contend with internal socio-political and economic problems which are slowly surfacing in the form of social movements such as PTM. On May 13, 2019, the National Assembly approved the 26th Constitution Amendment Bill seeking an increase in the number of seats for the erstwhile FATA in the National and KP Assembly.[xix] The hope was that it would give proper representation and help to resolve some grievances. However, this did not change anything on the ground, in fact several PTM leaders and Army officers were killed in targeted attacks by unknown assailants, and the proxy war continues.     


The Army Act of 1952, extended to FATA in 1965, provided legal backing for the military actions which cannot be challenged in any court. Due to decades of oppression the daily lives of a majority of Pashtuns focused on personal survival in conditions of physical and material deprivation. Social traditions provided some degree of cultural stability and occasional collective relief. Meanwhile, political leadership provided an objective to fight against foreign invaders in Afghanistan. The current wave of political awakening is owed largely to internet and cellular phones bringing this society out of confining political realities. The Pakistan army realises that political aspirations in Pashtuns are rising. Their demands which includes existing  ‘within the state apparatus’, could threaten the Army’s hold on the region, which it does not want to lose even after ‘mainstreaming’ of the area. This is owing to its strategic location and the critical role it has played historically during Anglo-Afghan wars, Cold War and now playing in War-on-Terror. The Northern route of the strategic China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through these areas. It is a gate way to Central Asia, and over the last few years the Russians have been showing strategic interest in these mountainous expanses. In March 2017 Deputy Chief of General Staff, Colonel General Israkov Sergi Yuryevich visited Miramshah, North Waziristan.[xx]

However, the extended stay of large number of troops who were inducted in FATA post 9/11 has jeopardized the normal functioning of civil society and led to rapid militarisation of policies and weakening of the traditional systems of administration in which state shared sovereignty with tribal elders for decades.[xxi] The situation was further aggravated  by the failure of state policies and resulted in lowering people’s trust.

In January 2018, a young shopkeeper and aspiring model, Naqeebullah Mehsud with three others, was murdered in a fake encounter as a suspected terrorist, in Karachi. Later, the Pakistan Anti-Terrorism court declared all of them innocent. This fake encounter sparked countrywide protests against stereotyping of Pashtuns as terrorists by state institutions, particularly security agencies. During these protests PTM emerged, under the leadership of Manzoor Pashteen, a 26 year old belonging to the Mehsud tribe. Earlier he started this organisation under the name of ‘Mehsud Tahafuz Movement’, to protect Mehsuds but later it took on the cause of all Pashtuns with the support of prominent leaders such as Ali Wazir and Mohasin Dawar.[xxii]

The reason Pakistan army immediately became anxious about PTM is its slogan, ‘Ye jo dehshatgardi hai, iske peeche wardi hai’, which literally means ‘the ones responsible for terrorism are the ones in uniform’. PTM is not a registered political party, nor is it a separatist movement. Their demands are fundamental human rights; justice for thousands of alleged victims of forced disappearances; and to register probes in thousands of extrajudicial killings. If the state acts on these demands, it could bring out the misconducts of the Army. Initially to appease PTM, military leadership accommodated lesser demands such as relaxing curfew, demining border areas, and ending aggressive searches at check points. However, the Pashtuns continue to organise protests, and in the 2018 elections they found a voice as two PTM-supported candidates, Ali Wazir and Mohasin Dawar, won and became Members of the National Assembly. Prior to FATA reforms, in August 2011, no political party was permitted in FATA. Later, religious nationalist parties supported by other national parties like PMLN and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) dominated the arena. But the 2018 elections changed that, as Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar continued to raise the issue in Islamabad and all over the country. They were also given a grand welcome at the Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s swearing in ceremony.

Pakistani security agencies discredited PTM’s rise by labelling it ‘hybrid war’ and questioning their patriotism. PTM leadership and cadres are frequently arrested, imprisoned, and killed in targeted attacks.[xxiii] The recent casualty in May 2020 was Arif Wazir, first cousin of Ali Wazir was killed in front of his house in South Waziristan.[xxiv] He was the 17th member of his family killed since 2003. Such targeted killings continue to incite social unrest in the region and increase pressure on the government.

The Army

The stand that the Pakistan army is taking over FATA, seems contradictory at first glance. On one hand they appear to have agreed to the merger of FATA with KP which will lead to the strengthening of civil administration. Military leadership also seeks acknowledgement of its success in the war against terrorism and its post war socio-economic uplifting projects such as building schools and markets in this region.[xxv] The army expresses a willingness to solve the issue of missing persons, which they categorise in three segments – enforced disappearances, killed in conflict, and militants who joined TTP. They blame PTM by saying it is putting all these persons in one category to exploit the sentiments of people, which will open the arena for militancy once again.[xxvi]

On the other hand, considering the chain of events in the last few decades one can conclude that, the Army does not want to give up its role and crucial strategic position in the tribal areas. In fact, it is strengthening it by bringing civil administration in to help the communities, like in Baluchistan. FATA Reforms Committee report of 2015, articulated the Army’s role in FATA as, “(due to) heavy commitments along eastern border with India, it is not feasible to indefinitely maintain such a large presence (of troops) in FATA”, therefore it recommended raising a new force including[xxvii]

  1. 500 levies from each agency and 200 from each FR which will be trained and equipped by retired military and FC officers to maintain internal law and order
  2. 18 new wings of FC should raise to manage the border
  3. A Tribal Light Infantry (TLI) to be raised by the Pakistan army to help in mainstreaming FATA.
  4. Intelligence Committee to be set up in each agency of FATA with the agency’s FC commandant, the agency’s ISI, MI and IB heads and a representative of the army as its members.

The ultimate goal of the army remains to bring FATA into mainstream Pakistan, but it also looks forward to use this opportunity to increase its own institutional strength with the help of civilian administration and local Pashtun youth, who already constitute approximately 14 per cent of the Army’s manpower.


Pakistan leadership continue to stick to the plan envisaged by Gen Naseerullah Babur (when he asked Mullah Omar to settle the Durand line issue). With the ongoing Afghan peace process in which the Taliban is led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a well-known accomplice of ISI and Mullah Baradar (who has spent a decade in ISI prison), Pakistan may achieve what it has been aspiring for since the last few decades. If the peace process ends with a power-sharing agreement between Taliban and Afghan leadership, it is evident that the Taliban will continue to keep their hold on areas already under their control, including Loya Paktika, Kandahar, and Helmand – bordering Pakistan. This time, however, they may comply with Pakistan’s demands.  If peace talks fail and violence continues in Afghanistan, the Taliban will remain dominant in Pashtun majority areas. Although this scenario will hinder Pakistan’s economic ambitions, which can only be achieved by bringing stability to Afghanistan. 

Therefore, Pakistan will push for an intra Afghan peace deal which will favour its ambitions including re-establishing connectivity to Central Asian States, increasing trade with Afghanistan, securing its northern borders from frequent skirmishes between the two armies, pressurising those who support PTM-like movements from Afghanistan, and finally ending the Durand Line issue and ensuring with that a Greater Pashtunistan. 

This may not resolve Pashtun grievances in the erstwhile FATA. Instead, if military continue to use force against them, the situation will only aggravate and the possibility of youth turning towards militancy cannot be denied. Pakistan may see another wave of violence. This time military and political leadership have limited options, as they cannot consent to all demands of the PTM, neither can they use the religion card as they have already experienced its side effects in the form of homegrown terrorism (which has cost them thousands of troops and billions of dollars). Pakistan is at a critical juncture of the grand strategy it has planned to end one chapter of its national integration, but the odds are increasing with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, weakening of the economy and incapacity of Government. It needs to be seen how Pakistan will play their hand further.


References and Notes


[i] Siddique, Abubakar. “Pashtun Protest Reignites Debate About Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Policies”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 6, 2018,

[ii] DG ISPR Asif Ghafoor Press Conference, You Tube, April 29, 2019,

[iii] Chatopadhyay & Sarkar, 2003, Vol.3, p. 789.

[iv] Shinwari Ibrahim, “Parts of Afghan border to be fenced”, Dawn, February 28, 2017,

[v] Mahsud, Sailab. “Tribe wants Angoor Adda border crossing reopened”, Dawn, March 26, 2017,

“Pakistan, Afghanistan in angry tangle over border fence to keep out militants”, Reuters, October 18, 2017,

[vi] “Worst border clashes in years: Are Afghanistan and Pakistan at war?”, DW News,

[vii] Begum, Imrana. “FATA’s Merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: An Historical Analysis (2018)”, Pakistan Perspectives Vol. 23, No.2, July-December 2018. Available at SSRN: or

[viii] Rahi, Arwi., “Do the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan get on as well as some think?”, Dawn, April 27, 2019,

[ix] “Pakistan’s Tribal Areas: Appeasing the Militants”, International Crisis Group, December 11, 2006,

[x] Operation Al-Mizan (2002-2006), Operation Rah-Haq (November 2007), Operation Sher-e-Dil (September 2008), Operation Zalzala (2008-2009), Operation Sirat-e-Mustaqeem (2008), Operation Rah-e-Rast (May 2009), Operation Rah-e-Nijaat (October 2009), Operation Koh-e-Sufaid (July 2011) and at last Operation Zarb-e-Azb (2014), Rad-ul-Fasad (2018).

[xii] Siddique, Abubakar. “Pashtun Protest Reignites Debate About Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Policies”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 6, 2018,

[xiii] “FATA Long-Term Governance Action Plan 2015-2025”, Planning & Development Department, FATA Secretariat, September 2015,

[xiv] Sial, Safdar. “Taliban on the March: Threat Assessment and Security Implications for the Region”, Pak Institute for Peace Studies,

[xv] However, it is still unclear, despite the presence of vast Pakistani troops in the region (with complete authority to decimate any opposition) and the presence of NATO troops on the other side of the border, how thousands of terrorists have been allowed to take refuge in the region.

[xvi] Aziz, Sartaj. “History of FATA reforms”, The Express Tribune, March 8, 2017,

[xvii] Repealed colonial era Frontier Crime Regulation Act (FCR); Jurisdiction of Supreme Court and Peshawar High Court has been extended to tribal areas; Tribal agencies become tribal districts; Frontier regions termed as subdivisions; Nomenclature of political agents, the administrators, called as deputy commissioner; Seats for KP increased in NA from 48 to 55; Senates seats will be reduced from 104 to 96 in 2024; Seats in the KP assembly increased from 124 to 145, out of which tribal areas have 21 seats reserved.

[xviii] “JUI-F rejects Fata-KP merger”, Dawn, December 19, 2016, After meeting Chief of Army Staff Gen. Bajwa in December 2017, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman toned down his opposition to merger. “PM, army chief discuss Fata issue with Fazl”, Dawn, December 20, 2017,

[xix] Khattak, Inamullah. “Lawmakers approve bill granting tribal districts more seats in national, provincial assemblies”, Dawn, May 13, 2019,

[xx] “Russian military delegation in rare visit to N. Waziristan”, Dawn, March 31, 2017,

[xxi] FATA Long-Term Governance Action Plan 2015-2025

[xxii] Pashteen, Manzoor. “The Protest of the Pashtun”, The News, March 3, 2018,

[xxiii] “PTM’s Mohsin Dawar among at least 15 protesters arrested outside Islamabad press club”, Dawn, January 28, 2020,

[xxiv] Sirajuddin. “PTM’s Arif Wazir dies in Islamabad hospital after gun attack in Wana”, Dawn, May 2, 2020,

[xxv] Rana, Muhammad. “Situationer: US-Taliban talks to decide TTP’s fate, PTM’s future”, Dawn, January 20, 2019,

[xxvi] Ibid

[xxvii] “Interim Report Fata Reforms Comission”, Governor’s Secretariat Peshawar, March 2015,


View expressed in this article are of the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Pajhwok’s editorial policy.

Note: this article published by 9DASHLINE  

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