- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 20, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | The Pakistani government has lifted a ban on political activities in its tribal areas along the Afghan border, including a ban on membership in political parties that dates to colonial times.

President Asif Ali Zardari announced the changes last week in hope that tribesmen would begin a political opposition to Taliban and al Qaeda sympathizers, who hold sway in mosques.

Previously, about 4 million residents of seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) could not belong to a political party or run for public office on any political party’s ticket, and politicians from elsewhere in the country could not hold rallies, make speeches, register voters or engage in any other political activity.

FATA consists of seven tribal districts — Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, North and South Waziristan — that together make up an area about the size of Massachusetts.

Analysts argue that the Taliban and al Qaeda took advantage of the political vacuum in FATA to gain control of these areas, but they are divided over whether the recent expansion of political rights will reverse the dominance.

“The tribal chieftains and their handpicked individuals, clerics, drug barons who have had any influence, mostly could contest and win elections” as long as they had no political affiliation, said Imran Wazir, a Peshawar-based political analyst.

This, he said, enabled the Taliban to increase its influence on Pakistan’s side of the border, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S.

Candidates backed by the Taliban won all 12 National Assembly seats from FATA in 2002 and most of the seats in 2007 elections, Mr. Wazir said.

“The problem is that [members of parliament] from FATA have become virtual spokesmen of Taliban and advocates of their agenda,” said Ijaz Khattak, another Peshawar-based analyst.

Pakistani religious parties formed an alliance back in 2001, first called the Afghan Defense Council and later Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, to support the Afghan Taliban regime and resist the U.S.-led coalition’s military operations in Afghanistan.

Mr. Zardari’s decision to expand political rights of FATA residents drew criticism from some representatives of the area, including lawmaker Saleh Shah from South Waziristan.

“The president has taken the decision in a haste,” Mr. Shah said. “The president has not taken tribal parliamentarians into confidence over the reforms.”

Mr. Shah is believed to have been close to Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban chief recently killed in a drone attack.

Secular political parties of the country, especially the ethnic Pashtun nationalist parties and Mr. Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party, have long demanded political rights for FATA.

Latif Afridi, a senior leader of the secular Awami National Party and a former member of the Pakistani parliament from Khyber tribal district, said the change could help take politics away from mosques.

“Mullahs could do politics five times a day while political forces were straitjacketed,” he said.

More important, however, is for the government to gain control of tribal areas.

“Although this bar on political leaders would no more be there, the real benefit of this step could be achieved when government restores its writ and peace in FATA,” Mr. Afridi said.

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