Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA): One of the Last

Dark Places of the Earth

In Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness, the unexplored and unmapped jungles of the African Congo in the 1890s are referred to as “one of the last dark places of the earth.” Today, with international travel accessible to virtually anywhere, along with the advent of on-line satellite mapping programs, one would assume that no such uncharted areas remain on the planet. However, there does exist one last bastion of “no man’s land,” left virtually unexplored by modern civilizations. This forbidden land is known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, and is a breeding ground for the Taliban and al-Qaeda to conduct terrorist activity.

Located in the mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is comprised of seven regions or agencies; Bajur, Mohmand, Kurram, Khyber, Orazkzai, North Waziristan, and South Waziristan. Roughly the size of Rhode Island, the FATA is notorious for being a hotbed of a range of difficult issues: among them, the extremely low literacy rates of its tribal inhabitants – the regional average is just 22%;1 opium trafficking and other signs of lawlessness; an underdeveloped economy with only 34% of the population rising above the poverty line; and, of course, the numerous madrassas and Taliban training camps continuously recruiting, sheltering and training Taliban fighters (as well as other al-Qaeda affiliated supporters).

An Ungovernable Territory

Considered an ungovernable territory of Pakistan, the FATA is inaccessible to U.S. military and ISAF forces operating across the border in Afghanistan. For this reason, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda operatives slipped across the Torra Bora mountain range from Afghanistan into the FATA’s Mohmand Agency, to elude the initial special operations teams assigned to kill or capture him following 9/11. Prior to Operation Neptune’s Spear, the joint CIA-Navy Seal operation that killed bin Laden on May 1st of this year in Abbottabod, Pakistan, intelligence analysts commonly assumed that bin Laden was hiding out in either North or South Waziristan (of the seven Agencies, North and South Waziristan are geographically and politically the most difficult to access, a feature that has critical implications for US and Pakistani military strategy).

The FATA is home to 3.3 million ethnic Pashtuns, a centuries old tribal society that, with the exception of AK-47s and other weapons, has not evolved much in the past three hundred years. Governance in the region, like the Durand line conflict (the arbitrarily drawn line which divides Afghanistan and Pakistan), is for the most part a remnant of the British colonial system. To “enforce” the FATA, the Pakistani government assigns Political Agents (PAs) to govern each agency. These Political Agents visit villages from time-to-time to collect taxes and assist with tribal disputes. Law enforcement lies in the hands of a Frontier Corps, headed by Pakistan’s military officers. However, under Pashtun tradition, most “justice” is enforced through an eye-for-an-eye code known as a “blood feud.” Each tribe imposes punishments for theft, murder, and/or rape internally, without the consent or notification to the Pakistani government. The Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) is the governing code surviving from British colonial rule; it is decried by the locals and is seldom, if ever, effective in stemming local feuds. The Supreme Court and High Court of Pakistan have no jurisdiction in the region, 2 as the FATA is deemed virtually lawless.

Terrorism and the FATA

The post-9/11 years, understandably, have created new conflicts and reinforced attitudes that had existed in previous years. Pakistani policy toward the inhabitants of FATA, beyond the FCR, has encouraged the emergence of a population that is more likely to support religious extremism. Indeed, the 1997 “adult franchise” created a situation whereby only leaders of madrassas and mosques could lobby for votes. In 1997 and 2002, Islamic leaders were elected as FATA representatives – a sign that mullahs had displaced secular Maliks (religious scholars who initially welded authority and leadership within Pashtun tribes). The Taliban thus found a fertile ground on which to execute their projects.

The Taliban, and other Al Qaeda supporters, are now believed to be present in all FATA agencies and are in full control of Waziristan, Orakzai and Bajaur. The local government no longer has power in 24% of the region, and analysts maintain that the spread of Taliban militancy is likely in the future.3 U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta maintains that al-Qaeda’s newly promoted leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri is most likely in the FATA.4 Add to this the animosity of tribesmen to the Pakistani military and intelligence forces – the infamous ISI – and a sketch of the present Af-Pak dilemma is obvious.

One of the most dangerous terrorist groups operating in the FATA is Tehik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). TTP was formed by Waziri tribesman Baitullah Mehsud as a union of various militant groups with the aim of sending fighters to fight the US in Afghanistan. Baitullah, who was killed by a CIA drone attack in 2009 (later to be replaced by his deputy Hakimullah Mehsud), was particularly ruthless in his usage of suicide bombing attacks. According to a United Nations report, TTP is responsible for 80% of the suicide bombing attacks in Pakistan, as well as being responsible for the assignation of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.5 On December 30, 2010, seven CIA officers were killed in a suicide bomb attack by Jordanian double agent Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi at Forward Operating Base Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. In a video later released by TTP, al-Balawi declares that the attack was to be in retaliation of Baitullah Mehsud’s death. Hakimullah Mehsud is seen standing next to al-Balawi in the video.

Other emerging Pakistani terrorist organizations like Hizbul Mujahideen, Harkatul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Jaish-e-Muhamamd, Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Islam, Ansar-ul-Islam, Amar-bil-Maroof, and Tahreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi have expanded their recruiting base by propagating their anti-western messaging in the madrassas (religious schools) in and around the FATA. This fertile terrorist breeding ground has become a magnet for those who wish to wage jihad against the “infidels” and has allowed for a greater number of extremist demagogues to seize political power. Furthering their cause, these new Islamist figures have connections with Pakistan’s Islamist parties, the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Meanwhile, monetary support from the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is pouring in to Taliban training camps and madrassas. It is no wonder that Time magazine has used the term “Talibanistan” to refer to the region.6

Addressing the Problem

In 2004, 80,000 Pakistani troops entered FATA and met with hostility from the Taliban and Waziri tribes. But opposition is never the only problem when it comes to the Pakistani military’s operations in this region; the military simply did not have the capability of leveling a serious blow against the militants, the result being the signing of peace accords requiring the release of prisoners and a troop drawback, which in turn has caused the emergence of a more powerful Taliban in the border areas. Nothing testifies more to the weakness and unwillingness of the Pakistani military in dealing with militants in the FATA.

One difficulty has been determining Pakistan’s role in either fighting or supporting the local militants. The presence of ethnic Pashtuns is important to Pakistan: they are practicing Sunni Muslims who reside in rural areas beyond the FATA – their tribes straddle eastern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan – and are thus capable of expanding Pakistan’s influence in the region. This puts the Pashtuns in the middle of a conflict between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which has spanned decades: namely, the dispute over the Durand Line.

The dispute over the Durand line gives Pakistan incentive to attack Afghan villages and to continue building posts and fences inside Afghanistan. In the past year, Pakistan’s military has reportedly fired 800 rounds of missiles at its western neighbor.7 The movement of jihadists across the border is also beneficial.

Dividing the Pashtuns along the Durand line thus has the double effect of antagonizing the tribes and of reinforcing the conflict between the two countries. Pashtun tribes are in danger of forever remaining under Taliban rule.

One solution that has been proposed and partially implemented is aid. With one hospital bed for every 2,179 and one doctor for every 7,670 residents of FATA, and not a single university, there is no doubt that the tribes would benefit from development projects. However, the $7.5 million USAID package announced in 2007 has been widely criticized8 as bringing minimal development to the region, as corruption is widespread and measurements of effectiveness are difficult to gauge. Furthermore, it is no secret that any explicitly aid that is perceived as being in any way connected to the US falls prey to extreme criticism and is rejected by the Pakistani government itself, which is suspicious of any signs of increase in US involvement.

This fierce anti-American sentiment has been exacerbated in part by the controversial drone attacks, which increasingly have been a staple of US operations in the regionsince 2002, are often blamed for the Pashtun’s intractability. However, studies such as the one conducted by the Islamabad-based think tank, Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, show that Pashtuns see the drones as “liberators” from Taliban coercion and the Pakistani military’s indiscriminate and intrusive attacks.9 Moreover, although drone strikes are regularly denounced by the Taliban as indiscriminate attacks on civilians, a January 2011 report by Bloomberg stated that civilian casualties in the strikes had apparently decreased, despite having been ramped up by Obama since 2009. According to the report, the U.S. Government believed that 1,300 militants and only 30 civilians had been killed in drone strikes since mid-2008, with no civilians killed since August 2010. 10Recent events in the region have also highlighted the success of US drone strikes, one of them being the recent alleged (at the time of this writing) death of Atiyah abd al-Rahman, Al Qaeda’s Number 2. Rahman assumed this role in AQ after bin Laden’s death; he had close ties to the Afghan Taliban. He was killed Mir Ali, a town in North Waziristan, that enduring hub of local militants and the Taliban. The success of this drone strike has raised hopes that finding Zawahiri is a similarly attainable goal. Pakistan, by contrast, has initially denied that it was Rahman – and not local militants – that had been killed, and claimed that Rahman’s death would not deter AQ.

In a move that deviated from Pakistan’s official policy on US drone strikes – which is to deny their utility and appropriateness – Pakistani General Mehmood Ghayur has actually expressed approval of the drones. In a March 2011 briefing, he was quoted as stating that ''myths and rumors about U.S. Predator strikes and the casualty figures are many, but it's a reality that many of those being killed in these strikes are hardcore elements, a sizable number of them foreigners.''11 It is undeniable that, at the very least in North Waziristan – an area that Pakistan aims to avoid – drones have yielded concrete results.

Ultimately, remote drone strikes are an effective option for US operations in the FATA in terms of accuracy and the reduction of US casualties. On-the-ground operations carry a greater risk for US soldiers, and their utility is diminished when interrogation is not likely to yield actionable intelligence. The goal of the 2009 troop surge was to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan,”12 and indeed, the use of drones has increased our ability to eliminate key AQ figures, and put within our reach the goal of protecting our soldiers.


It is somewhat shocking to think that in 2011 a lawless, tribal society – bent on the destruction of Western beliefs – has successfully flourished within the nuclear state of Pakistan. Equally disconcerting is the fact that the United States and the international community has tried unsuccessfully to purge the FATA of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups. Amid a currently strained relationship with Pakistan, the United States is at a crossroad as to how to proceed with future operations in an area that is hemorrhaging violence. One thing is for certain, if the United States fails to act, the Federally Administered Tribal Area will remain, like Conrad’s description, “one of the last dark places of the earth.”

1 FATA Secretariat, UNICEF and World Food Programme. 2009 Survey. Available at 
2 Pakistan Constitution. Part XII, Art. 247 and Art. 248. Available at constitution/. 
3 BBC. 2009 Survey. Available at 
4 Iqbal, A. (2011, July 10). Zawahiri Hiding in FATA: Panetta. Dawn. Available at 
5 United Nations AMA. July 2011. Available at 
6 Time. (2007, March 22). The Truth About Talibanistan. Available at article/0,9171,1601850-­?1,00.html. 
7 Shalizi, H. (2011, July 1). Afghanistan Won’t Fire Back on Pakistan: Karzai.Reuters. Available at­?wont-­?fire-­?back-­?pakistan-­?karzai-­?124842643.html. 
8 Perlez, J. New York Times. (2007, July 16). Aid to Pakistan in Tribal Areas Raises Concerns.New York Times. Available at 
9 Taj, F. (2010, April 16). CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan's FATA Region and the "Loss" of Actionable Intelligence: A Pashtun Perspective. Terrorism Monitor. pp. 4-­?6. Retrieved from EBSCOhost. 
10 Capaccio, T. and Bliss, J. (2011, January 31). US Said to Reduce Civilian Deaths after Reducing CIA Pakistan Strikes. Bloomberg. Available at­?01-­?31/u-­?s-­?said-­?to-­?reduce-­? civilian-­?deaths-­?after-­?increasing-­?cia-­?pakistan-­?strikes.html. 
11 Masood, S. (2011, March 10). Pakistani General Credits U.S. Drone Strikes. New York Times. p. 8. Retrieved from EBSCOhost. 
12 President Barack Obama’s speech announcing the surge on December 1, 2009 at the United States Military Academy at West Point, West Point, NY-­?­?press-­?office/remarks-­? president-­?address-­?nation-­?way-­?forward-­?afghanistan-­?and-­?pakistan. 
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