Seven years since the Sept. 11 attacks, the "war on terror" is increasingly focused on Pakistan's tribal zones, a lawless sliver of land near the Afghan border from where re-energized terror networks are threatening to undermine the global fight against terrorism.
Despite a $25 million bounty on his head, Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, is still at large. Most intelligence analysts believe the al Qaeda chief – as well as Ayman al Zawahiri, his second-in-command - are based in the region.
A sparsely populated landscape dotted with dusty, often armed, walled compounds, Pakistan's tribal zones is currently home to a veritable Who's Who of wanted men, including Baitullah Mehsud, head of the Pakistani Taliban and the alleged brains behind the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Two days before the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, at his swearing-in ceremony, Bhutto's widower, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, pledged to work with Afghanistan to fight terrorism.
At a joint press conference with his Afghan counterpart, Hamid Karzai, Zardari addressed Afghan concerns that Pakistan was not doing enough to curb cross-border militancy.
"I assure you if there are any weaknesses on this side or that side of the border, we shall stand together," said Zardari.
'Land of the lawless'
The Pakistani side of the 2,600 kilometer Afghan-Pakistan border has been plagued with weaknesses since the birth of the Pakistani nation in 1947.
In more than six decades, there has been plenty of talk, but little political will to tackle the administrative mess that lies at very root of the problem, according to several experts.
"This is an area that is over-investigated, but surely the most under-implemented," said Afrasiab Khattak, a prominent Pakistani politician and human rights activist.
Khattak should know. As the leader of the leftist Awami National Party in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, Khattak is at the forefront of the "tribal question" that has systemically challenged Pakistani authorities.
Squashed between the Afghan border and the North West Frontier Province, Pakistan's tribal zone is officially called FATA, short for Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
In popular Pakistani discourse though, the tribal region is simply referred to as "ilaka ghair" or the land of the lawless.
Colonial laws, cash handouts and collective punishment
But experts say Pakistan's tribal zones are inherently lawless, simply because the laws of the land do not apply to the region.
Home to more than 3 million people, mostly Pashtun tribes, FATA is governed by colonial era laws designed by the British to pacify tribes. Under the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), the British maintained order by simply paying tribal leaders to secure their cooperation. Failure to do so resulted in the "pacification" of the entire tribe.
The laws were adopted wholesale at independence and more than 60 years later, has resulted in administrative mismanagement of Kafkaesque proportions.
Political parties are legally barred in the tribal zones, denying residents the political representation guaranteed under Pakistani law.
Social order is – theoretically, at least – maintained by buying the support of elders, or maliks, through cash handouts or personal privileges.
Failure to secure the order results in the collective punishment of a tribe, which contravenes the Pakistani Constitution.
"This kind of law is unacceptable," says Ali Dayan Hasan of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "The provision of collective punishment contravenes international law. Under the war on terror, the Pakistani government is using the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulations to justify the use of methods such as collective punishment, and economic blockades of civilians."
Laws that aid the militancy
But experts say that far from stemming militancy, the colonial-era laws are aiding the militancy.
"It is the state's failure to extend its control over and provide good governance to its citizens in FATA that has enabled the militants to mount their powerful challenge," concluded a December 2006 report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
The officially sanctioned policy of appeasement has led the Pakistani government to provide militants amnesties in exchange for "empty" verbal commitments to end attacks on Pakistani forces, according to the report.
What's more, it has allowed militants to establish parallel, Taliban-style judicial systems that are threatening to percolate into neighbouring North West Frontier Province and Balochistan.
While successive Pakistani governments have emphasized the need to overhaul the tribal administrative system, Khattak maintains that very little is done on the ground.
"The fact is, there are elements in the ruling circles in Pakistan that have used these areas as a shadow space rather than an area where human beings live," says Khattak. "There are elements in the ruling circles who want to keep FATA a no-go area, a secretive zone where everything is possible and they are preventing political parties in terms of political organization so that extremists and militants will have no competition."
The lawlessness in the tribal zones, complete with a thriving parallel economy, enables corrupt political agents as well as tribal elders to enrich themselves.
A change in the letter of the law?
Shortly after he was nominated prime minister following the February 18 elections, Yousuf Raza Gilani called for the scrapping of the FCR, a move that was widely welcomed in and outside Pakistan.
A committee subsequently set up to recommend changes has proposed renaming the hated FCR the "FATA Regulations, 2008". But while the committee has proposed banning the arrests of women and children, it has also maintained that if a tribe fails to hand over an accused member to the government, close relatives and other tribal notables may be arrested.
A draft of the proposed FATA Regulations, 2008, is set to be presented to Gilani and once it secures the prime minster's approval, the draft will be sent to the president. Under the Pakistani Constitution, only the president has the authority to make amendments to the FCR.
It remains to be seen if Pakistan's new president has the will to take on the weaknesses on his side of the Afghan-Pakistan border.