Despite comparatively progressive forces taking control of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP)
after success in the February 2008 provincial elections, stability remains elusive and the law and order situation has gradually deteriorated, raising important questions about the correlation between politics in the province and the nature and extent of militancy there. This essay investigates how different political and religious forces have influenced the state of affairs in the province in recent years.
There has been a sharp rise in the number of terrorist attacks in the NWFP. In 2009, there were 49 suicide attacks targeting police, security forces, political figures, markets, and social gatherings.[i]
Many of the attacks have targeted Peshawar, the NWFP capital, posing a serious challenge to the province’s coalition government, led by the Awami National Party(ANP) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Militants crossing into the NWFP from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and fighters from South Punjab (where most sectarian and Kashmir-focused groups recruit) moving to the FATA through various NWFP routes have made the province militarily dangerous.
The social and political dynamics in NWFP are also inextricably linked with the security environment in the ever volatile tribal areas. Militancy in the FATA (widely known in Pakistan as illaqa ghair
, “foreign area”) has often negatively affected law and order in the adjacent NWFP, especially since the 1980s. Likewise, political developments in the mainstream NWFP (also called “settled areas”) increasingly influence political dynamics in the FATA. Despite stark differences in the administrative and political systems of the two regions, the same political parties operate in both areas.
Pakistani security forces were slow to react to signs that militants were growing more aggressive from 2007 to 2009. Political instability played a major role in the government’s inability to devise an effective counterterrorism policy, and the alliance of progressive political parties elected in February 2008 was overwhelmed by the Swat crisis, in which militants used violence and political manipulation to conquer major swaths of the Swat Valley and adjoining areas. Belated but effective military action in 2009 reasserted government control in the region, but it will be some time before things return to normal in the Malakand division of the NWFP, as the Swat, Malakand, Chitral, and Dir districts are known collectively. The crisis situation in the NWFP did not emerge overnight; the deterioration was a product of years of poor governance, regional tension, and economic distress, in addition to the gradual strengthening of militant forces, especially since the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan fell in 2001. The prolonged presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and over-dependence on military means to defeat insurgents in the region also negatively affected the residents of NWFP, and predictably so.
Hassan Abbas is Quaid-i-Azam chair professor at Columbia University and Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society in New York.