Some thoughts on Swat: the devastation caused by the army’s till-now half-hearted attempts to defeat the insurgents is inexplicable

Some thoughts on Swat
Friday, January 30, 2009
Charles Ferndale

For months I have been reading assiduously the comments in Pakistani newspapers concerning militancy in the NWFP and FATA. This newspaper, in particular, has distinguished itself in its coverage of this tragedy. The courage, passion and tenderness that writers have shown in their articles and letters suggest to me that, contrary to appearances, Pakistan may still have a future. Of the regions now riven with bloody strife, the one about which I should like to comment here is Swat.

I have read everything I can find about Swat, the Taliban, and the trouble there. I have also spoken to many friends with close blood ties to Swat, who also have homes there. I visited Swat often when it was still a place of peaceful beauty and great hospitality. However, in all my reading and discussions, the things most absent have been reliable answers to centrally important questions. We seem to know much less than we need to know, if we are to understand what is happening in Swat.

Here are some of the things we don’t know. When I say “we,” I mean well informed people outside what Pakistanis call the “agencies.” We don’t know what, if anything, these “agencies” know. We don’t know who is financing the militants. We don’t know how many hardcore militants there are, nor how many supporters they have, nor what proportion of their supporters is coerced into their support. We do not know to what extent the militancy in Swat is a popular uprising. We don’t know how many of the leaders of the insurgency are not Swatis. We don’t know how they are being supplied and resupplied. In short, we don’t know anything we would need to know if we were the people responsible for a successful suppression of the insurgency. I have heard lots of speculative answers to these questions, but I have never been offered anything as useful as a fact.

Nevertheless, some facts do seem to be emerging from this ghastly turmoil. A group of people, whom others call Taliban, are committing utterly disgraceful acts of brutality upon people who have done no one any harm (unless we were to share with the perpetrators of these atrocities their psychopathic views of good and bad). They are acting contrary to those principles of Islam that the vast majority of decent Muslims accept. Their actions are abhorrent. It is possible that few of their supporters approve of the atrocities committed by some of them, but we don’t know what proportion approves or disapproves of these actions. Theirs is a guerrilla war. All guerrilla wars share some common elements: first, they cannot prosper without the support of a significant proportion of the population among whom they hide (the “support” need not be voluntary); and, second, in order to defeat a well organised, well-financed insurgency, the opponents of that insurgency must field at least ten fighters to every one fielded by the insurgents.

From what I have read, there is nothing to suggest that the Pakistani army is fielding ten fighters for every militant, so, according to military experience, it will fail. The soldiers fielded by the government are mostly Punjabis, who may or may not be willing to die for the salvation of Swatis. The result is that the military is resorting to tactics (shelling, bombing, mortar fire, etc.) which are sure to kill and injure many more civilians than insurgents, thus causing even greater suffering and further hatred of the government.

From what I read, the devastation caused by the army’s till-now half-hearted attempts to defeat the insurgents is much, much worse than the atrocities being committed by the insurgents; though the insurgents’ atrocities are more colourful.

That such a strategy should pass without outrage in Pakistani society is evidence of the tendency for outraged people to think unclearly. I read daily in the Pakistani press strident criticism of America’s overlooking of the fact that its policies to kill a few militants may often lead to many civilian deaths. Yet when it happens in Pakistan, the occurrence passes with much less criticism, or is altogether ignored.

A brief survey of Swati history shows that the people of that beautiful valley have suffered repeated invasions from stronger groups, who have snatched their land, wealth, homes and daughters and who have tortured, imprisoned, expelled or killed all who opposed them. (Sound familiar?) The only good leader they seem to have had was the last Wali, under whose wise and fair guidance they showed themselves to be the nicest people on earth. A friend of mine knew the last Wali and asked him what was his secret of good governance. The Wali replied “impartiality.” But ever since the Wali was deposed in 1969, impartiality is exactly what few Swatis have enjoyed. Quite the contrary, they have had removed from them the close personal care of their indigenous leader, only to be oppressed by greedy, arrogant, brutish, insensitive outsiders whose power base was not gained by popular approval but was imposed by force from a central government and its cronies, indifferent to the interests of the indigenous habitants of Swat.

Can one blame them for perhaps turning to terrible people for defence against those whom they may have seen as worse people? Alas, they may now have discovered that their hoped-for saviours are actually as bad as, or worse than, their oppressors were; it seems now to be their dreadful fate to be killed by their “liberators” too.

Why is no Pakistani government capable of impartiality? Why has it always lacked all sense of social justice? What Swat needs is the dedicated attention of well-financed people who really love its people. Richard Holbrooke’s comments about America being unable to afford to create a Valhalla in Swat bode ill for the Swatis. Were the Americans better informed they might know that before 1969, Swat was a Valhalla that financed itself. America’s policies destroyed it.

The writer is a freelance contributor living in Karachi. Email: