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Can Pakistan drive the Taliban out of its tribal belt?

With the 2014 withdrawal of NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan looming, Pakistan is turning its attention to the impoverished tribal areas where regional terror groups have long sought haven. 

By Correspondent / April 18, 2013

Pakistan army soldiers patrol Sararogha, which was the stronghold of the Taliban in South Waziristan, the Pakistani tribal area bordering Afghanistan, in March.

B.K. Bangash/AP

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South Waziristan, Pakistan

Impoverished and perpetually neglected by the country’s central government, the semi-autonomous tribal regions of northwest Pakistan have long been a simmering source of both national and regional tension.

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For years, the country’s central government has tacitly allowed extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban to use the region as a kind of haven for militants waging conflicts just across the border in neighboring Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the aftershocks of that conflict have spilled over into the tribal areas’ civilian population, disrupting education and economic activity.

Now, with the 2014 withdrawal of NATO troops in Afghanistan looming, the Pakistani government is reexamining its role in the long-neglected region and renewing its counterinsurgency efforts against militants. But many analysts, local leaders, and residents question whether the country has either the will or the resources to truly reform its tribal belt. 

"The tribal areas have been knowingly neglected socially and constitutionally by successive regimes since independence," says Rahimullah Yousafzai, an expert on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), as the regions are collectively known. 

Indeed, the Pakistani military claims it has now secured control in many areas of FATA – the most recent win in South Waziristan, where a military operation was launched in 2009. But even those areas have yet to be transferred to the hands of the civilian administration, and many others are not under the government's control at all. 

A history of division

Since British colonization, the region’s seven geographically divided “agencies” have not been an official part of Pakistan. In 1901, to appease tribal leadership wary of a centralized government, the British introduced a separate governing system in FATA, known as the Frontier’s Crimes Regulations (FCR), which continued after Pakistan's independence in 1947. 

Under the FCR, the tribal areas are governed by federally appointed political administrators who have absolute executive, legislative, and judicial power in each agency. Constitutional civil rights afforded to the rest of Pakistan do not exist. 

“The government also gives many privileges to the tribal leadership like money, land, etc.," says Safdar Hayat, former president of the Tribal Union of Journalists, who hails from North Waziristan, where the Taliban are headquartered. "These privileges are not allocated as rights of civilians but only for those heads of tribes who do not question the FCR.” 

Added to that is instability in neighboring Afghanistan, which has bled over into the region and contributed to a low educational attainments and high poverty. Along with rigid cultural traditions, these factors have held the tribal areas back in terms of socio-economic development compared with the rest of Pakistan. They have also fueled concern about the insecurity and militancy spreading beyond the region.

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