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What Are Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier and Federally Administered Tribal Areas?

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Question: What Are Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier and Federally Administered Tribal Areas?
To understand why Pakistan is so unstable and such a fertile ground for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, one must understand what Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Provinces and Federally Administered Tribal Areas are all about: lawlessness, and where the Taliban rules, not Pakistani authority. But what, exactly, is that province, and what are those "tribal areas"?
Answer: Pakistan is almost as large as Texas and Louisiana combined. This nation of 175 million Muslims is divided into four provinces and several territories or federally administered areas. The smallest and most unsettled of the four provinces is the Northwest Frontier Province, an area a little smaller than South Carolina. The region is dominated by ethnic Pashtun, who are Sunni Muslims, although the province includes pockets of Shiite Muslims.

Peshawar and the Bin Laden Connection

The capital of the province is Peshawar, where lawlessness, violence, drug- and gun-running laced in Sunni fundamentalism prevail. It was in Peshawar that the CIA and Saudi-backed covert war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989) was headquartered. It’s through Peshawar that much of Afghanistan’s heroin trade flows.

It was also in Peshawar that al-Qaeda first organized through the offices of the World Muslim league and the Muslim Brotherhood in the city. Those offices were run by Abdullah Azam, a Jordanian Palestinian who had attended university in Saudi Arabia, with Osama bin Laden. Bibn Laden first traveled to Peshawar in 1980, when he began networking with local Mujahideen leaders. He settled there in 1982, bringing with him heavy construction equipment from his father’s Saudi construction firm and helping to build, in 1986, the Khost tunnel complex, a CIA arms depot that the Pentagon in 2001 would bomb heavily in attempts to flush out bin Laden. Saudi donations financed bin Laden’s and Azam’s operations in Peshawar, from where, in the 1990s, terrorist attacks—including the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and the bombings of American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998—were planned, according to Pakistani journalist and Daily Telegraph correspondent Ahmed Rashid.

Birth of the Taliban

Afghan refugees fleeing Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and the Afghan civil war of the 1990s settled by the hundreds of thousands in the Northwest Frontier Province, a burden that saddled the local economy but also gave rise to madrassas by the hundreds, where young Afghans, orphaned by the wars back home, were educated along strict ideological lines. Those young Afghans from those madrassas became the backbone of the Taliban.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas

Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province is sometimes confused with Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It should not be, the two being separate entities with only these things in common: The predominance of Pashtun culture and the virtual absence of Pakistani central authority. That’s especially the case in the tribal areas, where Pakistani law simply does not apply. These days, Taliban law does almost exclusively.

the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, comprise seven tribal agencies: Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, North Waziristan, and South Waziristan. By agreement with the Pakistan government, those “agencies” are ruled autonomously by local tribes. New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins described the origins of the arrangement:

This method of governing the tribal areas — indirect rule through local chiefs — dates back to the British imperial period. The British put tribal leaders — known as maliks — on the payroll to stand in for the central government, which imposed no taxes or customs duties and, in turn, did very little. At the same time, imperial administrators reserved for themselves extraordinary powers of arrest and punishment that extended to collective reprisals against entire tribes. The purpose of the malik system was to keep the tribal areas quiet and at least nominally under the thumb of the imperial government. This preserved a feudal political structure, and feudal levels of economic development, into the 20th century.

The British system, with a little tinkering, has survived to this day: the FATA stands apart from the rest of Pakistan, with little or no government presence and little or no development. Not 1 person in 5 can read or write. Pakistani political parties are banned. Universal suffrage wasn’t allowed until 1997. Until recently, tribesmen could claim no protection by Pakistan’s Constitution or its courts. Inside the FATA, the locals do not even change the time on their clocks, as other Pakistanis do, when daylight savings begins. “English time,” it is called.

Complicity of the Pakistani Government and Military With the Taliban

The Pakistani government has attempted to bring the tribal areas as well as the Northwest Frontier Province under its control, especially after facing intense pressure from the Bush administration to do so as part of the administration’s war on al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Between 2001 and 2008, when Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf was president, the Pakistani military reportedly lost 4,000 troops to the battle.

But Musharraf’s attempts to control the Northwest Frontier and the Tribal Areas was neither effective nor fully committed. It was Musharraf’s military and his intelligence services that had built up the Taliban, financing, training and encouraging its fighters to destabilize the regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s to preserve Pakistani influence there. The close links between the Pakistani military, the intelligence services and the Taliban have never diminished. By some accounts, including Filkins’ in late 2008, rthey have gotten stronger.

The Bottom Line

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas are a state within a state. They are controlled by the Taliban. They host training camps for Taliban guerilla. They host training camps for al-Qaeda operatives. They are the likely staging ground of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks, whose numbers in 2007 were the highest of any year since 2001. The tribal areas are also the staging ground for Taliban fighters preparing to attack NATO, American and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.

According to Filkins, the Pakistani government in 2008 struck a deal with Taliban warlords: no attacks inside Pakistan, but a free hand to attack in Afghanistan.

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