ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The weak, U.S.-backed government of Pakistan’s unpopular president, Asif Ali Zardari, is receiving rare domestic praise this week for a move that even opponents say could help accomplish something that has long been the domain of the Pakistani army: pacifying the militant-riddled tribal belt.
Last week, Zardari authorized long-discussed reforms allowing political parties to campaign in the northwestern tribal region and relaxing dated laws that hold entire tribes accountable for one person’s crime. The changes chip away at measures that are widely viewed as violating the fundamental rights enjoyed by the rest of Pakistan’s 180 million people — and that have inspired little loyalty to the state among residents of the borderlands.
The changes have yet to be implemented, and some observers and tribal representatives complain that they barely scratch the surface of the problems. But in Pakistan, where governance is characterized more often by side-switching and potshots than by policymaking, the development is being greeted as a stride toward civilian control in an area where the power players have long been the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the army.
“These steps are very, very important,” said Khadim Hussain, a university professor who directs a research institute focusing on the tribal areas. “So many times, people there tell me, ‘You have given us a national identity card, but you have not given us a feeling that we belong to Pakistan.’ ”
The mountainous, conservative tribal belt has long been as isolated politically as it is geographically. For decades, British colonialists and the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani state attributed that to the “warrior-like” culture of the area’s Pashtun population. Now there is general agreement that oppressive and unique laws, long encouraged by the powerful military, marginalized the region — and, in recent years, made it a sanctuary for terrorists.
The belt is known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, and it is divided into seven sections overseen by an appointed “political agent.” The agent often serves as little more than a conduit for patronage, analysts say. There are no state police, and courts consist of politically influenced tribal councils or Taliban tribunals. Political parties are barred, so the region’s 12 elected representatives in Pakistan’s national assembly have had little incentive to sit in the opposition.
“Any government would be able to purchase their votes,” said Babar Sattar, a legal expert and newspaper columnist in Islamabad, the capital. “People weren’t really represented — individuals were represented.”
The most notorious problem is a British-era criminal code enacted to suppress Pashtun opposition and long assailed by human rights activists and FATA residents. Among other things, the regulations allow whole tribes to be jailed or their businesses blocked if one member is suspected of a crime; political agents can deny bail, imprison people to “prevent” killings and expel those they deem “dangerous fanatics.”
One elder of the Ahmadzai Wazir tribe in South Waziristan agency said the political agent there recently suspended state stipends to his tribe and the salaries of those who work for the tribal police. The reason, he said, was that militants had fired mortar rounds at an army camp near the tribe’s settlements.
“We are at war, and there could be firing of gunshots from any quarter,” said the elder, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. “How could we be punished for a crime we neither committed nor saw?”
Amid the vacuum of governance, Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters have set up shop, and domestic Taliban insurgents have cemented their sway through systematic killings of tribal leaders. Today, the tribal belt is a virtual no man’s land, even for political agents. That has suited the military, which prefers minimal civilian oversight in a strategic area where it carries out regular operations and is accused of nurturing militants to act as proxies in Afghanistan, Hussain said.
Under the amended laws, political parties can attempt to win and represent voters, and residents will be able to appeal political agents’ decisions before a new tribunal. Women, children and people older than 65 are exempt from collective punishment, and the national auditor is authorized to scrutinize political agents’ use of state funds.
Until now, the political agent “was answerable to none,” said Abdul Latif Afridi, a politician and lawyer from Khyber agency, in the tribal areas.
Analysts have raised plenty of caveats, starting with the question of whether and how quickly the changes will take root. Militant threats will also make political campaigning difficult, if not impossible, Afridi said.
Many observers add that the changes are too piecemeal. To fully “mainstream” the FATA, they say, it must be declared a province or incorporated into another province, a police force should be formed, and the British-era criminal code must be abolished. Hussain, the FATA researcher, said numerous surveys have found that the region’s residents agree.
Zardari promised reforms two years ago, but enactment was slowed by the endless wrangling of Pakistan’s unstable coalition government and by resistance from the military, one person involved in negotiations said. Some worry that the army allowed the changes in exchange for another ordinance recently signed by Zardari, which legalized some of the military’s unchecked powers to detain and try terrorism suspects in the restive northwest.
“The basic status of the region remains the same,” said Imtiaz Gul, an analyst and author of “The Most Dangerous Place,” a recent book on the tribal areas. “This represents fears within the bureaucracy, who have been opposed to any overnight change, saying it would disturb the social-political structures in the tribal areas.”
Khan, a special correspondent, reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.