Irfan Hussain: Terms of Surrender in Swat

Terms of Surrender
By Irfan Husain
Saturday, 21 Feb, 2009

This is the second time the govt has surrendered to Maulana Sufi Mohammad; the first was under the last PPP administration in the mid 90's.—Reuters

This is the second time the govt has surrendered to Maulana Sufi Mohammad; the first was under the last PPP administration in the mid 90’s.—Reuters

When Gen Niazi and his army of 93,000 surrendered to Indian forces in Dhaka in December 1971, there were angry demonstrations from Karachi to Rawalpindi.

Public fury was directed at the military high command and Gen Yahya Khan for having led the nation to this humiliating defeat.

However, in the wake of another surrender, this time in Swat, there has been no outpouring of grief and anger; just a sullen acceptance of the inevitable. Clerics, barely able to contain their glee, sat across the table from the NWFP’s chief minister, Amir Haider Hoti, and beamed at the cameras.

The federal and provincial governments have tried to put a brave face on this stinging reversal. Everybody from Asif Zardari downwards has protested that far from being a defeat, the imposition of the nizam-i-adl, or Sharia law, is somehow a great blessing for the people of Swat. And it is true that for now, the possibility of peace is what the valley needs after months of bloody conflict that has seen hundreds of civilians killed.

Although the 10-day truce generously announced by the local Taliban led in Swat by Maulana Fazlullah may provide some relief to a hard-pressed government, the insurgency is not going to disappear any time soon. The reality is that we are at the beginning of a very slippery slope. To imagine that the thugs who have been rampaging at will in Swat will meekly lay down their arms when the Pakistani state has rolled over is to delude ourselves.

A couple of years ago, when writing about Swat, I had used one of Lenin’s revolutionary maxims: ‘Probe with a bayonet: if you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.’ Time and again, extremists, terrorists and just plain criminals have been meeting mush, and they have been pushing. The result of this aggressive probing is that the state’s writ now barely extends beyond the boundaries of Mingora.

Once political space has been conceded to a group, it is very difficult to claw it back. We witnessed a similar surrender to Maulana Sufi Mohammad in the mid-1990s when another PPP government was in (nominal) charge. Then, too, there was an agreement to impose Sharia law in Malakand Division that got bogged down in the courts. But as far as the government of the day was concerned, it was willing to surrender as it was unable to put down the cleric’s revolt then, as it could not put down Maulana Fazlullah’s uprising this time around.

The major difference is that now, the militants who defeated the Pakistan Army are tougher, better armed and strengthened by the presence of Afghan, Chechen and Tajik fighters. Above all, they are far more cruel than their predecessors. They have routinely beheaded innocent people, and blown up approximately 200 girls’ schools. These are the killers the government is abandoning the people of Swat to.

Clearly, the first duty of any government is to protect its people. In this, the PPP and its allies have clearly failed. Despite its secular credentials, the ANP, the leading coalition partner in the NWFP, has cravenly surrendered a large part of its population and its territory to the most benighted elements in the country. To be fair, in the face of the army’s failure to crush the militants despite months of fighting and hundreds of civilian casualties, Hoti had few viable options.

For months now, Asif Zardari has been saying to anyone who will listen that the world should help Pakistan in its fight against the terrorists. But when the Americans offered to train our soldiers in anti-insurgency warfare, they were told we did not need their help. When their drones kill militants in the tribal areas, we lodge protests, and media commentators go ballistic. So how exactly should the world help?

Recently, President Zardari has appealed for a kind of Marshall Plan to support Pakistan’s socio-economic development. He argues that such an initiative would undercut the appeal of the jihadis. But this argument loses sight of the fact that the whole world is currently trying to cope with the economic mess it is in, and there is little spare change around. More importantly, the Taliban slaughter government officials engaged in any kind of development activities in the vast area they now control.

Increasingly, Zardari resembles a man with a begging bowl in one hand, and a gun in the other pointed at his own head. The reality is that for decades, we have sacrificed the bulk of our resources to support a vast defence apparatus we could ill afford. The extremist menace that threatens to destroy us was largely a creation of our own military establishment. And now that we need the army to defend us, we find it is not up to the task.

We need to face up to the fact that a lack of money is not the problem. What we really need is the political will to fight the monster confronting us today. Despite the concern of millions of Pakistanis, a vocal section of the establishment and the media are either in denial, or are cheering on the militants. Some have argued that the deal signed recently in Swat is actually good for the people.

Hoti is arguing that somehow, the ‘quick justice’ promised by Sufi Mohammad justifies his government’s surrender. The truth is that the Islamic courts to be set up are not based on case law and precedents. They rest, instead, on the wisdom and learning of the qazis presiding over the courts. From our knowledge of Pakistani clerics, it would need a brave or foolish person to place much faith in the justice provided by these worthies if they take over the courts.

In most countries, a single body of law governs all citizens. By handing over the people of Swat to the tender mercies of militants, the government has created a dangerous precedent. Now, any group of armed thugs can extort Pakistani territory as their fiefdom. Citizens will then have the choice of suffering their oppression, or fleeing. Soon, no area will be free from the Taliban, and their victory will be complete. Already, they are saying they will turn their attention to the rest of the country once they have consolidated their hold over Swat.

If the Taliban bayonet keeps meeting mush, it will soon be at every Pakistani’s throat. (Dawn)