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Challenges Facing Development in Pakistan's FATA

Ijaz Khan


This essay addresses the challenges facing development in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a special administrative region enjoying vast internal autonomy with minimal state oversight. Due to the area’s special constitutional status, isolation, and proximity to and shared ethnicity with Afghanistan, the FATA has become a safe haven for extremists and terrorists following the overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001. As a result, the region is now the focus of international concern and the center of the war on terrorism.

With U.S. support and prodding, the Pakistani government has initiated a comprehensive three-pronged political, military, and developmental strategy to break the FATA’s isolation and rid the area of militancy. Focusing on the developmental element of that strategy, this study finds that the government’s policies are not geared to achieve any of the fundamental changes required for meaningful development of the region. Furthermore, Pakistan’s ambivalent posture toward the war on terrorism has gradually undermined Islamabad’s ability even to pursue successful development projects.

This essay begins with a brief summary of the current political-administrative structure of the FATA. It then identifies Pakistan’s strategy for developing the FATA— noting earlier government attempts to develop the area, especially those made during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government (December 1971–April 1977). The next section discusses the FATA’s evolving socio-economic landscape and power structure and points to the futility of the Pakistani government’s reliance on outdated political-administrative structures in light of these changes. Focusing on the deleterious impact of militancy on development initiatives, the essay then examines the rise of militancy in the FATA. The essay concludes by discussing the Pakistani government’s current inability to bring effective change to the region.

FATA’s Political-Administrative Structure

According to the system established by the British, the FATA consists of seven administrative units, which are known as political agencies, and six frontier regions. [1] There is also one Provincially Administered Tribal Area (PATA)—Malakand Agency. The FATA is directly administered by the federal government through the governor of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), while each agency is administered by a political agent (PA). The PA is also the judicial officer, against whose decision there is no right of appeal.

The colonial system was characterized by minimum state penetration and aimed only at ensuring security for roads and government posts. The Jirga, which is the traditional Pashtun council of elders, was adapted to work as an intermediary between the...

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[1] For an account of the FATA’s governance and legislative structures, see "Pakistan’s Tribal Areas: Appeasing the Militants,” International Crisis Group, Asia Report, no. 125, December 11, 2006,