Debacle in Swat
Thursday, January 22, 2009 (The News)
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor
The Pakistan military seems to have suffered a decisive defeat in war. While a fierce military operation has continued in Swat since July 2007, the extremist militants who now control nearly three quarters of the valley have, through these months, dramatically expanded their hold. Till early 2008, only about a quarter of the Swat area, home to 1.8 million people, fell under their grip. Today, they have closed down hundreds of schools, run their own ‘Shariah’ courts in the area and execute people almost each day at a central square in Mingora. Among the victims of the militants has been a school teacher who worked to support her children. She was labelled a prostitute, forced to wear ‘ghungroos’ (ankle bells) on her feet and then killed after being mercilessly demeaned. Other young women and their parents speak of threats and harassment aimed at preventing them from working or studying. Parents have been ‘visited’ by militants and asked to keep daughters indoors. Those killed include persons, some elderly, who dared to speak out against the militants. In most cases they were dubbed government ‘spies’.
Quite obviously, the writ of State has vanished from Swat. For all the brave words we heard after the operation against militants resumed in Swat after the middle of 2008, the armed forces deployed there seem to have failed completely to overcome the fighters. People in the valley, few of whom risk speaking out given that now even Mingora is not safe, believe they have been punished for voting for the liberal ANP in the February 2008 polls, and voting against the MMA coalition. The vote appeared to be a desperate bid to escape the tyranny of militants who had begun to exert their hold over the area in the mid-1990s, when the firebrand leader of the radical Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariah Mohammadi (TNSM), Sufi Mohammad Khan, began an effort to impose his own version of Islamic law, launched the FM stations that authorities have since been unable to shut down and took thousands off for ‘jihad’ against the Americans in Afghanistan in 2001. It is today a rather frightening reflection on reality that the now aged Sufi Mohammad, released from jail last year as the ANP attempted to reach a deal with militants, today comes across as a moderate. Rather than any marked change in his stance, it is the far harder-line approach taken by his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah that has cast him in this role. Sufi Mohammad’s own influence too has waned, even though he is said still to be in dialogue with members of the provincial government who hope to find some way to end the bloodshed. Those who once chuckled at mention of Fazlullah, a man who wielded a sword and rode a white steed in apparent emulation of past Islamic warriors, collecting money and jewellery from villagers to finance his ‘jihad’, now cringe in fear at the mention of his name.
ANP leaders too cringe. Many, quite understandably terrorized by the beheadings carried out by militants, no longer speak out. Others, including party legislators from Swat who have threatened to resign over the fate of their homeland, have shed tears of frustration and genuine pain on the floor of the NWFP Assembly. But essentially, the party is helpless. It could only watch as a house that belonged to the late Khan Abdul Wali Khan in Swat was destroyed by militants. More inexplicable is that the military, deployed in the valley since 2007, have also seemed just as helpless. Even the presence of entire divisions seems to have done nothing to help them overcome what is, after all, a band of irregular fighters; they should be no match for a huge army on which we spend millions. The talk of ideology and the claims to defend Islam from these murderers is nothing more than a cloak to shield their true nature. Even respected religious figures in Swat who have attempted to raise the point that the actions of the militants, who bombed yet another girls school this weekend, have nothing to do with Islam, have been slain or driven out of Swat. Indeed, according to some estimates, 60 percent of the population has fled – with only the most hapless and the most impoverished who have nowhere to go, left behind to face the wrath of the militants.
The situation has led many to question the role played in Swat by the army. Certainly we need answers. Some local people are convinced the militants enjoyed secret protection from the security forces. There is a belief that some at least within the establishment still see militants as key allies. ANP leaders have themselves hinted at this. The NWFP Chief Minister has demanded the federal government do more to save Swat.
Members of the central government claim they are not oblivious to the situation. But this does not quite explain why the situation that now prevails there is being allowed to continue. Does the PPP – a party led for three decades by women – really believe that the denial of education to 80,000 girls is a minor matter? Or that messages warning men not to allow women out of homes are to be ignored? The total collapse of the writ of state from Swat is an immense issue. It highlights the dangers we face in other areas. To fail to address urgent attention to the situation there would be a folly of enormous magnitude.
Indeed, it is odd we have not heard about what has been happening in Swat for so many months. It is only now, as things have worsened still more, that we have been told about the atrocities committed on a daily basis. The media has helped in this. But perhaps it needs to do more. There is still an opinion that the problems in Swat and other areas have been created because of the steps to battle militants. The argument goes that this falls in line with orders issued from Washington. The facts are somewhat different: In Swat militants had already been using force to establish a writ over the area some eight years before the US got embroiled in the war on terror after the events of 9/11. The recruitment of people, especially young boys, for ‘jihad’ was on for years. The failure to make any effort to rehabilitate these brainwashed fighters after 2002, when many returned from Afghanistan, may have helped promote further militancy. This mistake must not be repeated. The State must do all it can to bring back Swat to its domain. If it fails to do so, other territories could also opt to go their own way – further weakening a country that has rapidly lost control over vast tracts of its territory.