Pakistan votes to bring tribal areas into political fold

Pakistan passed legislation on Thursday paving the way for its restive tribal areas to enter the mainstream political fold, bringing an ending to a colonial-era arrangement that endorsed collective punishment and fuelled militancy.

The constitutional amendment received broad support from across the political spectrum in the National Assembly, with 229 voting to approve the measure and one voting against it.

Another 10 abstained, according to state media.

The legislation still needs final approval from the senate and the signature of the president – a formality that is all but guaranteed after receiving overwhelming support in the lower house.

The amendment will bring an end to colonial-era laws governing Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), extend the writ of Pakistani courts to its districts and increase development assistance to its residents.

“Today this house has approved a historic bill, which will have very positive effects for Pakistan. I thank the opposition for their support,” Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi told legislators after the vote.

Following the passage of the bill, FATA will be officially merged into neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Since the days of the British Raj, the territory has long been seen as a backwater ruled by hostile tribesman that was kept as a buffer zone between Afghanistan and the settled territories that became Pakistan.

Following the 9/11 attacks the tribal belt along the Afghan border became a notorious focal point in the global war on terror, with Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters operating in the area with impunity.

The US has repeatedly accused Pakistan of allowing the tribal areas to host safe havens harbouring militants fighting in Afghanistan – an allegation Islamabad has consistently denied.

FATA residents have long complained its development has been overlooked by authorities, while appointed administrators were able to punish whole tribes for the crimes of an individual.

“Pakistan’s tribal areas have long been neglected. The government has taken this decision very late,” Rahimullah Yusufzai, a regional analyst and an expert on the tribal areas, told AFP.

Yusufzai predicted that implementation of the amendment could take months as Pakistan prepares for elections due this summer, which would leave the reforms in the hands of the incoming government.

The new amendment was largely celebrated across the FATA.

“It’s a historic day, I am more than happy,” said Malik Zarnoor Afridi of Khyber tribal district.

Samiullah Jan, from South Waziristan district, said he hopes the tribal areas will see an increase in development aid.

“They will get quality education, quality health care, roads, electricity, gas and economic opportunities,” said Jan.

The seven tribal districts – Bajaur, Khyber, Kurram, Mohmand, North Waziristan, Orakzai and South Waziristan – are home to some eight million residents, mainly ethnic Pashtuns.