Profiles of Pakistan’s Seven Tribal Agencies

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 20

The notion of “tribal culture” in the West often brings to mind images of backward, uneducated and unsophisticated societies. Perpetual chaos in states like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, for instance, is often attributed to tribal culture. It is a sweeping judgment as in many cases geopolitical, historical and even religious factors often play a more significant role than the impact of tribal ethos in defining what causes underdevelopment and violence. Pashtun tribal culture is generally portrayed as the root cause behind their support and sympathy for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. This analysis investigates these notions by studying the profiles of the Pashtun tribes that populate the seven tribal agencies that form Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Social and Political History

The people of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as well as the adjacent eastern regions of Afghanistan, are overwhelmingly Pashtun with a total population of around 38-40 million. Pakistan’s Balochistan province and Karachi city in Sindh province also have a significant population of Pashtuns. Geographically, FATA runs north to south, forming a 1,200-kilometer wedge between Afghanistan and the settled areas of the NWFP. The Durand Line divided Pashtun tribes between British India and Afghanistan in 1893 and since then this delineation has been viewed with great contempt and resentment by Pashtuns. After Pakistan’s emergence in 1947, this line became a major source of a tension between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pashtuns take immense pride in their independence and the fact that they have never been conquered in their 3000 years’ history (except, briefly by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane). As to the number of Pashtun tribes, there are approximately 60 but the figure rises above 400 if all sub-clans are counted. The largest and most influential tribes are the Afridi, Achakzais, Bangash, Durrani, Khattak, Mehsuds, Mohammadzai, Mohmand, Orakzai, Shinwari, Yusufzai and Waziri. Pashtunwali, the pre-Islamic Pashtun tribal code, demands hospitality, generosity when someone asks for pardon or protection and an absolute obligation to avenge any slights. Honor and chivalry are considered the hallmarks of this tradition. Compared to this deeply-rooted ethos and ethnic pride, the “idea of Pakistan” has proved to be a secondary factor in shaping the identity and character of these tribes, although in 1947 the NWFP and the tribal agencies decided to join Pakistan rather than India.

FATA: Basic Facts

Although part of Pakistan, the FATA region functions as a semi-autonomous area. Since the British Raj days, the region acted as a buffer zone between the British and Russian empires and operated on its own terms, although various tribes cooperated with the British off and on in return for financial incentives. This traditional pattern of governance continued even after they came under Pakistani suzerainty in 1947. On political and social issues, it is the jirga (assembly of tribal elders) that define laws, regulations and policies. Pakistani courts and law enforcement have almost no jurisdiction over the area. Unelected jirga leaders from the region, however, were invited to become full members of the successive elected National Assemblies of Pakistan until 1997 to represent FATA. Due to their allegiance to the Pakistani establishment, they would always vote in favor of the ruling party on critical issues, but in reality the state’s writ is only on paper.

According to the 1998 national census, close to 3.2 million people (the current estimate is 3.5 million) live in FATA, which covers an area of 27,220 square kilometers. Official statistics notwithstanding, the literacy rate is hardly in double figures. Basic amenities are scarce and, courtesy of the Afghan war of the 1980s, the latest weaponry is in abundant supply. Political agents represent the federal government and dispense regular stipends to local leaders (called maliks). Electricity is free and no taxes are collected. Only seven percent of the land area is cultivable and most income is generated by smuggling “custom-free” goods from Afghanistan into Pakistan, car theft rackets, drug trafficking from Afghanistan and the illegal sale of locally-made weapons. Carrying arms is a customary practice. Religious conservatism clearly holds sway and militant guests of the yore from Arab and Central Asian states have largely become part and parcel of the society through marriages. For administrative purposes, FATA is divided into seven agencies—Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, Mohmand, Bajaur, North Waziristan and South Waziristan—although there are six additional small pockets of tribal areas known as Frontier Regions (FR). These are transition areas between FATA and the adjoining settled districts of the NWFP. They are jointly administered by the NWFP and the tribal agencies (for example, FR Tank, FR Lakki, FR Peshawar) and have a combined population of about 275,000.

Profiles of FATA’s Seven Tribal Agencies

1. Khyber Agency: It derives its name from the world famous Khyber Pass which provides the most vital and important link between Pakistan and Afghanistan. With a population of around 500,000, it is inhabited by two important tribes—Afridis and Shinwaris. Afridis are widely known as courageous, although British historians remember them as a rebellious and treacherous tribe. While short tempered, Afridis are known as good fighters who are pragmatic in picking their battles and making alliances. They respect Sufis (mystics) and their shrines, which intellectually aligns them with Barelvi Sunnis, the antidote of conservative and pro-Taliban Deobandi groups. The Afridi tribe has also produced great men of literature. Shinwaris, the second largest tribe of this agency, are also influential, but its members mostly inhabit the Ningrahar province of Afghanistan. They are largely involved in business activities. In recent years, Khyber Agency has been a trouble spot known for hosting illegal radio stations supporting religious extremism and encouraging pro-Taliban activities (Dawn, December 2, 2004; Dawn, December 19, 2005).

2. Kurram Agency: Comparatively more accessible than other agencies, it has a population of about 450,000 and is home to two tribes—Turi and Bangash. A land of gardens and orchards, this agency has often been called pro-Northern Alliance because the Bangash tribe predominantly belongs to the Shiite sect of Islam, which is anti-Taliban in its orientation. Turi tribe (Turkic origin), known for its strong and hardy horsemen, also belongs to the Shiite sect and has been at loggerheads with pro-Taliban, Deobandi elements in the neighboring area. Some non-Shiite extremists in the area, however, were supportive of the Taliban, although with little effectiveness.

3. Bajaur Agency: Smallest of all, this agency is largely inaccessible due to its hilly terrain. With a population of about 600,000, it borders Afghanistan’s Kunar province, which is a hotbed of Taliban forces. Its prominent tribes are Tarkani and Utman Khel. The alliance of religious political parties—namely the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA)—has great influence in this area since two MMA politicians from this agency are represented in the National Assembly and one in the Senate. There have been some unconfirmed recent media reports about the possibility of Osama bin Laden hiding in the area. An aerial attack, reportedly executed by the CIA and targeting Ayman al-Zawahiri, took place in a village in Bajaur Agency on January 13, killing 18 people. Al-Zawahiri was not found among the dead and the incident led to severe outrage in the area. It is also relevant that Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a senior member of al-Qaeda who was involved in an assassination attempt on President Pervez Musharraf, told interrogators after his arrest in May 2005 that he had lived in Bajaur for some time (Dawn, January 15).

4. Mohmand Agency: The agency takes its name from the Mohmand tribe who resides there and numbers about 350,000. Mohmands are a very powerful and influential tribe and are known as natural guerrilla fighters. One of the important themes among Mohmands is the description and details of the wars in which they have fought. Indeed, they are widely known to have given more trouble to the British than any other tribe. Another distinguishing mark is the importance that they give to their clerics and divine leaders—they fought most of their wars under the leadership of their mullahs. They are also known for practicing certain primitive customs. In reference to the political scenario, Mohmand tribal leaders challenged the idea of joint combing of the area by Pakistani and U.S. forces in 2003, and later the NWFP government (led by the MMA) came forward to support the stance of the Mohmand tribe (Asia Times, July 15, 2003). Despite that, Pakistani army units conducted various search operations in the area and tribal leaders decided not to opt for a head on collision with them. It is pertinent to mention, however, that al-Zawahiri is reportedly married to a woman from the Mohmand tribe who lives with her father in the border area between Bajaur and Mohmand agencies (Dawn, January 15).

5. Orakzai Agency: This small agency has a population of about 240,000 and is primarily inhabited by the Orakzai tribe from which it derives its name. The other important tribe in this area is Daulatzai. Unlike most of the agencies, Shiites and Sunnis both live side by side in Orakzai, although seldom in peace. Regular sectarian clashes have diminished the effectiveness and influence of the Orakzai tribe. This is the only agency that does not have a common border with Afghanistan. The present governor of the NWFP and former corps commander in the region, Lieutenant General (Retired) Ali Mohammad Jan Orakzai, belongs to this tribe. Some senior bureaucrats in the civil service of Pakistan also hail from this tribe giving them influence in the power corridors of Pakistan. Despite having a comparatively high literacy rate, the agency was the first one to ban NGO’s from operating in the area, declaring them anti-Islamic. The possession of televisions has also been declared a crime here under the influence of the local Taliban.

6. North Waziristan: The second largest agency in terms of area, it hosts about 375,000 people, mostly belonging to the Wazir and Dawar tribes. The Waziristan region was a chronic headache for the British; even after the creation of Pakistan, Waziris continue to draw regular attention to Pakistan for their support of Pakhtoonistan/Pashtunistan (the joining of all Pashtun areas to create a new state) and hence maintained good relations with Afghanistan. Since the 1970s, however, Waziris joined the ranks of the Pakistani armed forces in considerable numbers as compared to members of other tribes. The transport business in the region is their monopoly. It is the kidnapping-for-ransom business, however, that they are most notorious for. As ironic as it may sound, Waziris are also fond of music and dancing, and despite the Taliban’s influence they continue to cherish these hobbies. The Pakistani army’s military operations in this agency started in 2002 and have led to a full-fledged military confrontation with Waziris. Many militant tribal leaders have become legendary figures in the process. Turning in their comrades to government authorities, as demanded by the army, meant a treacherous course of action for them. Interestingly, since the recent peace accord between Pakistan and the tribal elders of the agency, the Taliban have opened up offices in three important cities to “control law and order” (Daily Times, September 28).

7. South Waziristan: The largest agency in size, it is home to around 425,000 tribesmen from Mehsud and Wazir tribes. Both tribes are proud to have a formidable reputation as warriors and are known for their frequent blood feuds. Mehsuds, the majority tribe, according to historian Sir Olaf Caroe would never consider submitting to a foreign power that has entered their land. They are reputed to be good marksmen and are known for their trustworthiness. They are also the most independent of all the tribes and have the highest literacy rate among them. While they have produced many senior civil and military officers, the overall political leadership of South Waziristan is dominated by conservative mullahs. The two National Assembly members from this agency are clergymen affiliated with the MMA. Militants from Central Asia, especially those associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, were also based in this area. In 2004, they created a stir when they launched rockets at Peshawar city, targeting official buildings including military ones. Nek Mohammad, a notorious militant leader (although a hero to the region), was a Waziri from this agency.

A brief look at Malakand agency, which was converted into a district of the NWFP in 1970, is also pertinent here. The High Court of the NWFP extended its jurisdiction to this area in 1974. It has a population of around 550,000 and is inhabited by the Utman Khel clan (mostly peasants) and Yusufzais (Ranizais clan). Yusufzai are perhaps the largest, oldest, and most sophisticated of the Pashtuns. They are known to be hard-working agriculturalists, aristocratic in bearing and traditionally individual land holders. The area remained a seat of Gandhara art culture and is known for rare scenic places and tourist resorts. This area came into news headlines as a religious extremist movement under the name of Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) got its hold in the area in the early 1990s under a militant leader Sufi Mohammad (Terrorism Focus, May 17). In the wake of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan in late 2001, Sufi Mohammad took a small private army into Afghanistan to support the Taliban. He is currently in prison in Pakistan, but the movement he created has been reactivated recently. One positive development, however, was victory of a moderate party’s candidate in elections for the mayor of Malakand district last year.

In comparison to tribal agencies, the Pashtuns living in the NWFP districts (called settled areas) are more educated, urbanized and even leftist political parties like the Awami National Party (ANP) have had decent electoral successes (barring the 2002 elections). The 2002 NWFP elections were the first time since the 1971 elections that religious parties did so well.


The tribesmen of FATA, although diverse in many ways, have some common traits: they value their independence dearly; they consider all foreign elements suspicious (including Pakistani forces); and they are not ready to lay down their arms in combat zones willingly. Yet, at the same time, they are prone to compromise if there are tangible dividends available and if there is no threat to their lifestyle in the process.

Since 2002, Pakistan opted for a forceful policy in order to coordinate with the U.S. forces’ anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan, but it backfired because army action was indiscriminate and ignored the lessons of history. Lack of trust is now so widespread that tribal elements cooperating with Pakistani and U.S. forces are being targeted and killed everyday because they are considered spies—the worst possible indictment in Pashtun culture. Pro-Taliban radio stations are thriving in many agencies and reports of militant camps in the area perpetuate (Dawn, May 16). Many newly established schools for girls have been burned down. Additionally, some army officers and a few Air Force pilots have refused to conduct operations in the area as military action in FATA is increasingly unpopular in army circles (The News, October 5). Also, Pashtuns in the armed forces are becoming restive. It must be remembered that Pashtuns are the second largest ethnic group represented in Pakistan’s armed forces, and hence a dent there can be fatal for Musharraf.

In hindsight, the institution of the jirga could have been utilized more creatively. By Musharraf’s own admission, religious extremism and pro-Taliban sentiment among FATA tribes is turning into a people’s movement. Use of Joseph Nye’s “soft power” idea would have been much more effective, although it would require substantial resources and patience. The liberalization of society and reform takes time—which unfortunately is in short supply for political reasons.

Finally, given the potency of historical forces, the political scenario in Afghanistan greatly impacts all Pashtuns in the region. If a lack of financial resources and insecurity is hindering the Afghan nation-building process, then there will be consequences in Pakistan. If this trend continues, then ascendance of retrogressive forces in Pakistan is bound to take place even more forcefully in the coming years.