This is a potentially important and positive development in Pakistan: President Asif Ali Zardari has announced the extension of political parties to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The reason FATA has not had political parties is that this region remains governed by anachronistic regulations created a century ago by the British Raj. The British despaired of incorporating the hill tribes of the Northwest Frontier into India proper (which then included Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, as well as modern India). So they essentially left the tribes to their own devices, loosely supervised by political agents and a paramilitary Frontier Corps. This worked well enough from the British standpoint, although there was constant fighting on the frontier until the end of the Raj, but it essentially cut off this area from all political and social development. The result today: FATA has become a breeding ground for Islamic extremists who prey on a largely poor and illiterate population. As the New York Times writes:
The ban on political activities and parties had created a vacuum that was increasingly exploited by militants and religious extremists, allowing the Taliban and Al Qaeda to tighten their hold on the region as they mounted attacks on tribal elders and the area’s political overseers appointed by the central government, analysts and political workers here have said.
The government of Pakistan must commit its armed forces to a long-term effort to drive out the militants, which is starting to happen. Moreover, it must act to incorporate FATA into mainstream society, providing the kind of educational and political opportunities that would help to wean the inhabitants away from the extremists. Zardari’s announcement is a small step in the right direction. But Pakistan will have to do much more to follow up on some of the progress its troops are making on the ground.