The most dangerous place on Earth

Crime in the FATA

A semi-autonomous tribal region in the northwest of Pakistan, the FATA is by far the poorest and least developed part of the country. With literacy rate of only 17 percent and a per capita income of around $250 per annum, it is estimated that two-thirds of local households live below the poverty line. Stretched over a 2,400 kilometer area and administratively divided into seven agencies and six frontier regions, the FATA is governed through an informal system of "collective responsibility" with the traditional Pakistani government institutions of taxation, law enforcement, and courts having been suspended. In its place, judicial and administrative functions are supervised by a French prefect-type office called the "Political Agent."

Though tribal and parochial, native Pashtuns as a group have proven both agile and entrepreneurial in keeping all political and economic activities outside of formal state control. Compounding this challenge, a flourishing Hawala system in the FATA handles on average US$4.6 billion in foreign remittances. This cash influx is the heart of an informal economy which has been found to be robust, defying inflationary pressures and adverse exchange rates. The uniform yet physically inhospitable environment of the FATA thus ensures "invisibility" for an array of criminals, terrorists, and foreign jihadis to blend into the local population. 

As a result, a vibrant, effective and interconnected black economy has developed in the region owing in part to tax evasion and widespread illicit smuggling facilitated by the Afghan Transit Trade (ATT) agreement. For instance, narcotics and drugs have become a lucrative source of income in the tribal areas. According to casual estimates, as much as quarter of the drugs produced in Afghanistan pass through the border areas.

The FATA region is also historically abundant in arms and ammunition, but in the last two decades, illegal and highly sophisticated weaponry has tilted the balance in favor of non-state actors against the state. The political economy of these multifarious contraband networks is further facilitated by the presence of relatively sophisticated road networks, telecommunication facilities, and financial institutions in the area. Together, the World Bank estimates the overall value of this "stealth" economy at over $30 billion - one of the largest found anywhere in the world.

The Crime-Terror Interface

Although the tribal areas lack a formal education system, many have a sizable presence of mostly foreign-funded Madrssahs, which to some estimates cater to around 33 percent of school aged children. Unfortunately, because of the confluence of poverty and criminal opportunity, they also ensure a steady supply of volunteers for criminal enterprises and even terrorist operations.

An emerging consensus among scholars and practitioners suggests that following the surge in insurgent and terrorist activity of last decade, the erstwhile governance system of the FATA has collapsed, leaving the areas at the disposal of mullah (prayer leaders) turned warlords, and local/foreign militants. During the 1980s around 35,000 Muslim radicals passed through the FATA area to wage jihad against Russian Infidels. That war left behind experienced fighters, training camps, substantial military equipment, and significantly, a transnational network of organizational relationships. Moreover, it also yielded above all the self-confidence of victory over a superpower.

Following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, and the recession of perceived Western interests in the region, several thousand of these Arab Afghans established their bases in the provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, and Kandhar bordering Pakistan, ultimately spilling over to FATA after the Operations Enduring Freedom launched by NATO forces in 2001 (in response to the al Qaeda attacks of September 11th). The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) was established by forty militant commanders, having strength of an estimated 40 thousand fighters by December 2007. Subsequently, Taliban Militias have also emerged in North Waziristan, Kurram, Orakzai, Mohmand and Bajaur Agencies across the FATA.

The tribal areas and adjoining towns form the crux of the residual al Qaeda network which is disparate, but still able to communicate with regional affiliates around the world. Besides al Qaeda and TTP, there has been a visible presence in the number of these other actors in the FATA. TTP has become a formidable threat even after the killing of its founder commander Baitullah Mehusd in a U.S. drone strike on August 9, 2009.

He was succeeded by more ferocious Hakimullah Mehsud, who took responsibility for a suicide attack on CIA forward operating Base Chapman in Khost Afghanistan, resulting in killing of 7 officers as well as executing scores of strikes inside Pakistan resulting in the death of hundreds of security personnel. The failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad was also motivated by Hakimullah to avenge the killing of Mehusd, as well as the Afghan born Najibullah Zazi, who pled guilty of charges of planting a bomb in New York City Subway system. Terrorist attempts and attacks in Britain and other parts of Europe, North Africa, and the Gulf have also been traced to the networks operating in FATA.

Managing Across Threat Boundaries

Regrettably, coordinated efforts to counter the crime-terrorism nexus - including targeted strikes, military operations, border controls, law enforcement, negotiations and public diplomacy - have to date proven largely ineffective in countering the growing threats within the FATA. Indeed, mounting evidence suggests that all efforts ranging from accommodation to armed violence may have only served to aid the terrorists' cause and stimulate a surge in criminal activity.

Moreover, this militancy has resulted in the diversion of significant human and capital resources toward counterterrorism/insurgency for the regular security force (the Frontier Corps), with the army becoming increasingly reliant on aerial operations. Many experts are also questioning the efficacy of U.S. drone strikes, and there is now an increasingly shared belief that the political costs of these attacks may be exceeding the tactical gains. As a result, the destruction of productive infrastructure has meant that opportunities for legal gainful employment have shrunk considerably leaving fertile ground for transnational criminal networks to flourish amidst this security vacuum.

As a part of its "soft intervention" strategy, the United States has committed $750 million for livelihood programs over five years, and proposed the development of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZ). While this is a positive policy trajectory, these measures fall far short of meeting the magnitude of the challenge across the FATA.

Conflicts and threats in FATA and in Afghanistan have always complemented each other and if these "fertile conditions" are allowed to persist, the crime-terrorism nexus will continue to thrive, ultimately pushing the region toward greater instability. The government of Pakistan has, over the years, set up a number of commissions to conduct reforms in FATA, but so far little meaningful progress can be seen. There is need for a integrated approach to the FATA by addressing its controversial autonomous status through the introduction of regular and robust law enforcement and judicial institutions. 

Umar Riaz is a visiting fellow at the Stimson Center. A version of this piece was originally published by the Stimson Center.

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