The areas that today make up FATA were once part of the battleground on which the Great Game of imperial domination was played out in the 19th century. For the British colonial administrators of India, effective control of the region was imperative for the defense of their Indian possessions, serving as a bulwark against Russian expansionism in Central Asia. It proved difficult, however, for the colonial government to establish its writ in the tribal areas.
Colonial administrators oversaw but never fully controlled the region through a combination of British-appointed agents and local tribal elders. The people were free to govern internal affairs according to tribal codes, while the colonial administration held authority in what were known as protected and administered areas over all matters related to the security of British India.
Although various tribes cooperated with the British off and on in return for financial incentives (Abbas, 2006), this quid pro quo arrangement was never completely successful. Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, British troops were embroiled in repeated battles with various tribes in the area .Between 1871 and 1876, the colonial administration imposed a series of laws, the Frontier Crimes Regulations, prescribing special procedures for the tribal areas, distinct from the criminal and civil laws that were in force elsewhere in British India. These regulations, which were based on the idea of collective territorial responsibility and provided for dispute resolution to take place through a jirga (council of elders), also proved to be inadequate.
Frustrated in their efforts to subdue the region, the British in 1901 issued a new Frontier Crimes Regulation that expanded the scope of earlier regulations and awarded wide powers, including judicial authority, to administrative officials. In the same year, a new administrative unit, the North-West Frontier Province, was created by carving out parts of the then Punjab province and adding certain tribal principalities. The province, as it was constituted at the time, included five settled districts (Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan, Hazara, Kohat and Peshawar) and five tribal agencies (Dir-Swat-Chitral, Khyber, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan), and was placed under the administrative authority of a chief commissioner reporting to the Governor-General of India (Hunter et al., 1840-1900).
The institution of the political agent was created at this time. Each agency was administered by a political agent who was vested with wide powers and provided funds to secure the loyalties of influential elements in the area. It was also during this period that the maliki system was developed to allow the colonial administration to exercise control over the tribes. Under this system, local chiefs (maliks) were designated as intermediaries between the members of individual tribes and the colonial authorities, and assisted in the implementation of government policies (GoP, undated [a]).
Despite these efforts, bolstered by repeated military campaigns, the colonial administration retained what was at best a tenuous hold on the area until the British quit India in 1947. Soon after Independence, the various tribes in the region entered into an agreement with the government of Pakistan, pledging allegiance to the newly created state. Some 30 instruments of accession were subsequently signed, cementing this arrangement. To the tribal agencies of Khyber, Kurram, North Waziristan and South Waziristan were later added Mohmand Agency (in 1951), and Bajaur and Orakzai (in 1973).
Accession did not subsume the political autonomy of the tribes. The instruments of accession, signed in 1948, granted the tribal areas a special administrative status. Except where strategic considerations dictated, the tribal areas were allowed to retain their semi-autonomous status, exercising administrative authority based on tribal codes and traditional institutions. This unique system, given varying degrees of legal cover in each of the country earlier constitutions, was crystallized in Pakistan Constitution of 1973.