Transforming Pakistan’s Frontier Corps

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 6

While the jury is still out on whether General Pervez Musharraf’s limitations in overpowering the Taliban in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas are primarily an outcome of “incapacity” or “unwillingness” (or both), the United States has committed itself to helping Pakistan transform its Frontier Corps into an effective fighting force. This effort is intended to improve Pakistan’s ability to tackle the Taliban resurgence and eradicate al-Qaeda sanctuaries in the region. A grant of US$75 million a year is expected for the purpose as part of a $750 million fund to be disbursed in the next five years for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan (Dawn, March 17). It is a constructive step in principal, but without an innovative reform plan and implementation monitoring, the prospects of real improvement are dim. Pakistan has received billions of dollars from various international donor agencies over the years for different development projects, yet sadly, in many cases, a major chunk of the funds evaporate through corruption and mismanagement. This analysis attempts to understand the structure, strengths and potential of the Frontier Corps through the lens of its history and the political dynamics of the region. It also proposes some ideas for reform of the institution and better utilization of U.S. funds.

What is the Frontier Corps?

The Frontier Corps is a federal paramilitary force stationed in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan Province, known as FC NWFP and FC Balochistan, respectively. Both forces are separate entities that operate under the Federal Interior Ministry and are each headed by an Inspector General (IG). Both of these offices are invariably held by army officers (major generals) on deputation from the Pakistani Army. Currently, the IG FC NWFP is Major General Mohammad Alam Khattak and the IG FC Balochistan is Major General Shujaat Zamir Dar. Quetta and Peshawar (Balahisar Fort) serve as the respective headquarters of FC Balochistan and FC NWFP. Scouts Training Academy, Mirali in North Waziristan Agency serves as the primary training institution for FC NWFP.

The task of these forces is to help local law enforcement in the maintenance of law and order when called upon to do so. Border patrol and anti-smuggling operations are also delegated to the FC. Lately, these forces have been increasingly used in military operations against insurgents in Balochistan and militants in FATA. The total manpower of the Corps is currently around 80,000. All senior command positions in the Frontier Corps are filled by regular army officers who serve for a period of two to three years. Within army circles, few officers look forward to these assignments from their professional and career point of view.

It is also relevant to point out that FC Balochistan is comprised largely of non-Baloch, whereas a great majority of soldiers in FC NWFP are ethnically Pashtun. Secondly, FC Balochistan, comprised of 13 units, is not popular in Balochistan and is seen as an outside force that is widely believed to be involved in human rights violations and is known for the disproportionate use of force. On the other hand, FC NWFP, comprised of 14 units, has a comparatively better reputation among people of the province.

The Frontier Corps should not be confused with the Frontier Constabulary and the Frontier Force Regiment. The Frontier Constabulary, another federal paramilitary force (largely drawn from the NWFP, but operating in Punjab Province as well), has been gradually merging into FC NWFP since July 2002, whereas the Frontier Force Regiment is a unit of the Pakistani Army formed in 1956 from the amalgamation of three regiments: the Corps of Guides, the Frontier Force Regiment and the Pathan Regiment (Dawn, March 7, 2002).

History of Frontier Corps

The Frontier Corps was constituted by the Viceroy of British India, Lord Curzon, in 1907. It was an effort to organize and combine seven militias and scouts units operating in different tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan—namely, the Khyber Rifles (1878), the Zhob Militia (1883), the Kurram Militia (1892), the Tochi Scouts (1894), the Chagai Militia (1896), the South Waziristan Scouts (1900) and the Chitral Scouts (1903). These militias were largely loyal to British interests as they were part of the administrative units established by the British in the late 19th century. The units helped the British administrators manage the border area and operated as law enforcement contingents when needed. They also performed military duties on occasion, although not always successfully.

Bringing all these units under one command was primarily an administrative decision. An officer of the rank of a lieutenant colonel was designated as the inspecting officer of the Frontier Corps. Given the expansion of the force, the title was changed to inspector general (equal to the rank of a brigadier) in 1943. Two more units, the Second Mahsud Scouts (1944) and the Pishin Scouts (1946), were added to the Frontier Corps during British imperial rule ( The standard British recruiting principle was to involve locals and share security responsibilities with them. Their trainers were British military officers and these units were known for their military-style discipline. Their perks and salaries were also better than other services.

Pakistan inherited this organization in 1947 and continued to expand it by establishing many new units—for instance, Thall Scouts (1948), Northern Scouts (1949), Bajaur Scouts (1961), Karakoram Scouts (1964), Kalat Scouts (1965), Dir Scouts (1970) and Kohistan Scouts (1977). Even by 1947, the Corps had developed into a large force looking after the area from the Karakoram mountain range in the north to the Mekran Coast in the south. The area of responsibility was well over 2,500 miles in length. To manage and administer this growing institution, the FC was bifurcated into two units—basically separating Balochistan region from NWFP area. IG FC Balochistan was made responsible for the Zhob Militia, Sibi Scouts, Kalat Scouts, Mekran Militia, Kharan Rifles, Pishin Scouts, Chaghai Militia and First Mahsud Scouts. Some British officers continued to serve the FC until the early 1950s and Brigadier Ahmed Jan became the first Pakistani to hold the post of IG FC NWFP in 1950. In 1978, the post of IG FC was upgraded and since then an officer of the rank of major general heads the Frontier Corps.

When this analyst visited the Frontier Corps headquarters in Peshawar, Tall Scouts mess and FC post in Landikotal many years ago, there were smartly dressed Frontier Corps contingents who were hospitable and courteous. At the soldiers’ level, their roots are in the area that they are serving and they take pride in their units’ history. It is unfortunate, however, that very few of the locals are promoted to higher command positions, which are considered a reserve for officers from the Pakistani Army.

Political Role of Frontier Corps

During the early 1970s, the Corps was dragged into regional as well as local political battles at the behest of the state. Major General Naseerullah Khan Babar, IG FC NWFP, played a central role in 1973 in organizing and grooming anti-Daud Afghan resistance forces. Babar (who became the federal interior minister in 1993-95 and is known for galvanizing and supporting the Taliban) publicly acknowledges that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Masoud were among the Afghans who were first recruited as Frontier Corps personnel (on paper) and then trained by the Pakistani military’s Special Services Group. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, these assets proved very valuable. During these years, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto also tasked IG FC NWFP to help create an environment whereby the federal government could incorporate tribal areas into mainstream Pakistan, but that was not to be. On the other hand, FC Balochistan (besides the army) was used in the mid-1970s by the federal government to crush the insurgency in Balochistan.

Performance & Reform of the Frontier Corps in Recent Years

When tasked with tackling the rising sectarianism in FATA during the 1990s, the Corps failed miserably. Various other factors, however, were also at play in this context, the most important being Pakistan’s official support to the Taliban that lasted up to late 2001. Religious extremism oozing out of the Saudi funded madrassas and regional politics naturally influenced Corps personnel of whom a significant majority remains ethnically Pashtun.

The FC NWFP, however, did play an important role in the anti-narcotics drive. Simon Gillet, a UN advisor to the Dir District development project (in FATA) from 1996-2001, maintains that the Frontier Corps played a major role in eliminating poppy cultivation from Dir area (Asian Affairs, November 2000). The same cannot be said about FC Balochistan. For instance, one of its officials was found to be involved in drug smuggling quite recently (Dawn, February 9). Due to highhandedness and brutal military operations in recent years, the reputation of FC Balochistan is at its lowest ever. Efforts are underway to improve its image through involvement in the building of schools and hospitals, but Baloch grievances are simmering under the surface. The Corps installations in the province are routinely attacked by insurgents (Pakistan Times, December 26, 2004).

Since 2003, FC NWFP has been heavily involved in military actions in the tribal belt and has suffered significant casualties since the beginning of the campaign (The News, September 12, 2005). For almost all Frontier Corps units, this is their first combat experience (except for the Chitral Scouts which were involved in the Kargil operations against India in 1999). Media reports indicate that the Corps fared quite poorly while fighting pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda elements. Lack of professional training and adequate equipment coupled with poor communication systems and coordination negatively impacted their effectiveness.

Policy Recommendations

The United States has been supporting the Frontier Corps for the last few months with provisions of the latest communication equipment and bullet-proof helmets (Dawn, December 6, 2006; Lately, it has made increased financial commitments toward the Corps capacity building, but without a mechanism to closely monitor implementation of the reforms, progress is not guaranteed. Civil society actors, senior police officials and bureaucrats from administrative services of the NWFP and Balochistan should be involved in the process.

It is equally important that Pakistan give up the colonial legacy of appointing commanding officers from outside Frontier Corps cadres, as local tribesmen must also be given responsibility to lead their own forces. Making the Corps directly accountable to democratic institutions will also add to the credibility of the institution in the eyes of the locals, especially in the case of Balochistan. Last, the FC NWFP should not be deemed as an alternative to the local political authorities and law enforcement. The FC remains the second line of defense in a customary sense. Ignoring the office of Political Agent, Levies and Khasadars (local tribal police) that manage the day-to-day running of the tribal areas will be a costly mistake. Pashtuns seldom respond well to messages sent through bullets and shows of force. Traditional conflict resolution processes and local law enforcement forces should also be strengthened and empowered parallel to the reform of the Frontier Corps.