Pakistan’s Tribal Areas

Pakistan’s Tribal Areas

Experts warn there is slim hope to control this area given its long history of resisting intervention.

Last updated October 26, 2007 8:00 am (EST)

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Pakistan’s remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas (the tribal lands) have been a training ground for insurgents and a focal point for terrorism fears, particularly since the 9/11 attacks. President Pervez Musharraf finds himself squeezed between U.S. demands to control militants in the tribal lands and opposition from his own army against fighting the region’s predominant ethnic Pashtuns, who have strongly resisted Pakistani rule just as they fought British control during colonial times.

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Meanwhile, tensions between Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and Musharraf grow. Karzai insists Pakistan increase security and stop incursions by Taliban insurgents into his country, even though the Afghan leader refuses to recognize the disputed common border, which divides tribes of the Pashtun ethnic group on either side of the frontier. As the tribal lands continue to serve as a training base for terrorists and the Taliban, deploying Pakistani troops into the region has harmed efforts to integrate the tribal areas into Pakistan. Bill Roggio, a U.S. veteran who has written from Iraq and Afghanistan, says the uncertainty over how to handle the tribal lands "makes the problems in Iraq look like a picnic."

The Pakistani Tribal Areas

The semi-autonomous tribal lands consist of seven parts called "agencies": Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, and North and South Waziristan. There are also six smaller zones known as frontier regions in the transitional area between the tribal lands and the North-West Frontier Province to the east. The harsh, mountainous territory of the tribal lands runs along the Afghanistan border, drawn during colonial times by British diplomat Sir Henry Mortimer Durand as a means to divide and weaken the eleven major Pashtun tribes and turn Afghanistan into a buffer zone between the British and Russian empires. To the south of the tribal lands lies the large province of Balochistan. It is also divided by the border known as the Durand Line, which has never been recognized by Afghanistan and is a fluid boundary across which the Taliban make incursions from Pakistan. "There’s no border security, there’s no border guards, there’s no border control," says Amin Tarzi, a regional analyst for U.S.- financed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The tribal lands joined Pakistan rather than India after the former gained independence in 1947, but Islamabad historically has had minimal control over the fiercely independent Pashtuns.

Governance of the Tribal Agencies

Although Pakistan’s constitution gives the president executive authority over the region, the appointed governor of the North West Frontier Province in Peshawar controls the tribal lands by managing the bureaus that deliver services such as health care and education in the tribal areas. The tribal lands have representatives in the national assembly, but not in the assembly of the North West Frontier Province.

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However, the real power in the tribal agencies has historically rested with each of their political agents, who represent the federal government and maintain control through the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations. These laws "have been used as a whip to control the border tribes" for more than a century, write Barnett R. Rubin and Abubakar Siddique in a report on Afghan-Pakistani relations for the United States Institute of Peace. The regulations allow the political agent to impose collective punishment for crimes committed by an individual and to deliver prison sentences without due process or right of appeal. The tribal lands are also rife with corruption, given that selected tribal leaders known as maliks are given economic incentives doled out by political agents in exchange for their loyalty.

Individual tribesmen have limited rights, and in a region where political agents collect and distribute revenue with little oversight, development indicators show the literacy rate is a bleak 17 percent and there are more than eight thousand people per doctor, compared to roughly 1,500 people per doctor in the country overall. Rubin and Siddique report there are only 102 high schools in all of the tribal lands, while as many as three hundred madrassas, or Muslim schools, operate there. The rising number of these religious schools reflects the growing power of Islamic extremists in the tribal lands.

Extremists in the Tribal Lands

Yes. "The [tribal area] has become a melting pot for jihadis from all over the world," says Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, adding that the Afghan and Pakistan Taliban, al-Qaeda, Chechens, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are among the militants who train and take refuge in the tribal region. Furthermore, since the beginning of the Afghanistan war, members of the Taliban have advanced into leadership roles in some parts of the tribal lands, particularly the agencies of North and South Waziristan and Bajaur. The Pakistani government appears to take a harder stand on al-Qaeda to please the United States and a more permissive posture with the Taliban, who in turn work with other militant groups.

Crisis Guide: Pakistan The rise of the Taliban has upset the political balance in the tribal areas, where there have been cases of tribal leaders getting killed for questioning the Taliban’s growing power or working too closely with Islamabad. However, the Taliban’s religious extremism is not a new element in the tribal lands. Longtime foreign correspondent and Pakistan-based author Kathy Gannon explains "extreme tribal views are not new," and predate the international counterterrorism operation in the region by decades.

The Pakistani Government in the Tribal Lands

For the area’s tribesmen, being citizens of Pakistan is secondary to their Pashtun identity, and they regard foreigners, including Pakistani forces, with suspicion. Historically, Islamabad has exercised limited authority over the tribal agencies, but after the 9/11 attacks, the region came under the scrutiny of the United States as Taliban and al-Qaeda members took refuge there. Under U.S. pressure, President Musharraf ordered a counterterrorism maneuver involving the deployment of eighty thousand Pakistani troops over the course of the operation, which took place mainly in the agencies of North and South Waziristan. But the operation backfired when the forces failed to win a decisive victory. The conflict became increasingly unpopular with the Pakistani armed forces, the core of Musharraf’s support, among which there is a sense they are fighting their own countrymen under U.S. pressure. (Pashtuns are the second-largest ethnic group represented among the troops.) The Taliban also received past—and, some say, present—support from the Pakistani military and intelligence agency. On top of that, Gannon says the military’s operation in the Waziristan agencies stirred up the Pashtun desire for vengeance. "The more tribespeople you killed, the more you created a whole group who had to seek revenge," explains Gannon. By June 2006, Musharraf realized he had to negotiate with tribal leaders to end the unpopular conflict.

Peace Deals with Tribal Areas

Since 9/11, Musharraf has been trying to control militancy in the tribal areas through various peace agreements. But so far, these deals have brought negligible success. The Pakistani government has little means to force tribal leaders to hold up their end of the bargain, given the unpopularity of military intervention in the region. Also, the peace agreements have been widely criticized for strengthening militancy and are perceived as the central government’s defeat at the hands of the militants.

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In 2004, the Pakistani government reached a deal with Pakistani Taliban led by Nek Mohammed in South Waziristan whereby the militants agreed to live peacefully and not use Pakistani soil against any other country. Hailed as a breakthrough, by late 2007 the deal was regarded as a failure.

In September 2006, the Pakistani government reached a controversial peace treaty called the Miramshah agreement with North Waziristan tribal leaders and members of the Taliban. As part of the accords, Islamabad withdrew troops, released 165 militants, agreed to economically compensate tribe members for their losses, and allowed them to continue carrying small weapons. In return, tribal leaders said they would stop the infiltration of militants across the Afghani border and prevent attacks on the military. However, in July 2007, militants renounced the deal and cross-border operations surged.

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In March 2007, the government signed another deal with pro-Taliban militants and tribal leaders in the Bajaur agency. The tribesmen and the militants agreed not to give foreign militants safe haven in the area and the government pledged not to make arrests without consulting tribal elders. But bombings and attacks on government property in the area followed, prompting renewed government efforts in August 2007 to negotiate with tribal elders and the militants. The militants insisted they were not responsible for the new violence while at the same time demanding the release of fellow militants arrested by government forces.

In August and September 2007, the government also signed peace treaties with different tribes in Mohmand agency, in which the tribes made similar promises of not sheltering any foreigners or supporting the militants. But journalist Rashid says, "I think what is important to understand is these agreements are extremely dangerous because they leave the Taliban in place." He suggests a better course of action would be to round up Afghani Taliban leaders and send them to Kabul.

Looking to the Future

Experts agree that resolving the complex political issues in the region will take a long time. Gannon concedes that "it’s not as easy as just providing infrastructure" in a region where people have a long-standing code of behavior, but suggests that building roads and providing services can function as one step to draw tribal leaders "into the system." Roggio says he is not an advocate of putting U.S. troops into the tribal lands, but says security in the region could be boosted by offering Pakistan counterinsurgency training and providing intelligence. The best hope would be to hold an informal meeting between Karzai and Musharraf to resolve how to control the tribal area on both sides of the border as well as the movement of insurgents across it, says Tarzi. But, he warns, "I think the winner here will be the terrorists, unfortunately."


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