Although new changes to colonial-era laws known as the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) are aimed at giving more political freedom to the people living in the lawless Pakistani tribal areas, one of the unstated objectives of the government seems to be defeating the militants with political rather than military force.  President Asif Ali Zardari hinted at this when he said that a bigger “challenge of defeating the militant mindset awaits us… In the long run, we must defeat the militant mindset to defend our country, our democracy, our institutions and our way of life” (Dawn, August 13).
To achieve this objective in the turbulent Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari signed two executive orders, the Amendments to the FCR (2011) and the Extension of the Political Parties Order (2002), into law on August 12. Most political parties and analysts in Pakistan welcomed the reforms, which will establish a new three-member FATA tribunal and introduce political activity in the area in the form of enfranchisement and the establishment of political parties (The Nation [Islamabad], September 4). There is a consensus that these laws will lead to even more far-reaching social and political reforms in the coming years (Dawn [Karachi], August 13; The News [Islamabad], August 13).
Reforming the Frontier Crimes Regulations and extending the Political Parties Act to FATA has long been on the agenda of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (Dawn, August 4). President Zardari had agreed to a similar package of reforms in August 2009 but various political concerns prevented him from enacting them (Dawn, August 13). Pressure from different quarters, including the Pakistan army, stalled any further progress on the reforms. According to a senior government official, army top brass had opposed these reforms in the belief that legal reforms in FATA would hinder the war on terror as questions of rights violations would be raised against the army. However, the political leaders disagreed with the army and wanted to fight terrorism by bringing FATA under Pakistani law and by integrating the lawless tribal lands with the rest of the country. The political leaders have found a middle way by introducing a new package of reforms that does not completely replace the FCR. 
The reforms have put checks on the arbitrary power of the powerful Political Agents. They now give the accused the right to bail and make it mandatory for the political authorities to produce the accused before the competent authorities within 24 hours of arrest. The reforms also set up a three-member FATA tribunal. Headed by a chairman, it would have two members. One of them must be a senior civil servant and the other must be qualified to be a judge of the High Court. It will have powers similar to the High Courts under the constitution. The reforms also address the concept of collective responsibility, under which the political authorities used to punish an entire tribe, including women and children, for the crimes of one person. Henceforth, women, children under 16 and seniors would not be subject to arrest under the concept of collective responsibility. Under the reformed laws, in the first stage, only the immediate members of the family would be arrested, followed by the sub-tribe and other sections of the tribe (The News, August 12).
The FCR helped militants to turn the tribal areas into their sanctuaries. It is because of FATA’s tribal status that the region was chosen as the springboard for jihad in Kashmir in 1947. In the early 1980s, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) set up many training camps for the Afghan mujahideen and other Pakistani mujahideen groups in the tribal areas. Different mujahideen groups later set up their bases here for the same reason. It was the region’s tribal status that aided al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network in making it their base. Commentator Khalid Aziz writes in Dawn that “One only wished that these reforms had begun in 1947, rather than now. Had that happened, we may have prevented the growth of extremism in FATA. But as they say, it is better late than never” (Dawn, August 19).
The Pakistan Army has always supported the status quo in FATA for its importance as a launching point for jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Although the civilian government has taken this step in spite of opposition from the army, it will not be easy to implement the reforms. Their positive impact will be slow to be felt as the militant groups in these areas will put up severe resistance to the coming of political parties, as most of them are anti-Taliban. Most importantly, the Pakistan Army will have to abandon the search for strategic depth in Afghanistan and the use of jihad as an instrument of its defense policy if the reforms come into effect and reduce the regional insecurity that makes FATA a haven for militants (Daily Times [Lahore], August 20).
Arif Jamal is an independent security and terrorism expert and author of “Shadow War – The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir.”
1. For a detailed analysis of the FCR, see Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report, “FCR – A bad law nobody can defend,” 2004. Available at https://www.hrcp-web.org/pdf/FCR%20Report.pdf.
2. Author’s telephone interview with a senior government official, August 2011.