Plots in Pakistan’s press

November 9, 2010

Wearing army fatigues and a red cap, Zaid Hamid is perhaps Pakistan’s best-known television personality. The strategic affairs expert, who coined the term ‘Hindu Zionist’ to describe the hypothetical Indian and Israeli nexus against Pakistan, has become a household name across the country for his conspiracy theories on economic terrorism and Indian-U.S.-Israeli plotting. His Facebook page currently has a following of 66,000, among them students of expensive schools and even pop singers and fashion designers. Whether it is explaining Taliban militancy, Pakistan’s ever-present electricity crisis, Blackwater’s involvement in planning terrorist attacks, or plans for the U.S. to take over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, conspiracy theorists call the shots in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s booming television industry, allowed to operate by ex-dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf, helped lead to his downfall. The country’s vibrant Urdu press, which outsells its English-language counterparts in most areas of the country, also helps shape public opinion, with its small army of retired military officers and civilian officials dominate the opinion pages to air their misgivings and concerns. It seems that anti-Americanism on the op-ed pages sells to Pakistanis, who are among the most anti-American people in the world.

Nowhere is Pakistan’s conspiracy-prone media as virulent as when describing the U.S.’s role in Afghanistan. Pakistani outlets have painted the United States as an ‘American grand design’ aimed at controlling Central Asia’s energy resources, depriving Pakistan of its nuclear weapons, and threatening China’s emergence as a competitive superpower. India’s interests in Afghanistan are also the subject of much speculation, as the threat from Pakistan’s eastern border coupled with a growing Indian presence in Afghanistan is enough to give heartburn to many Pakistani commentators. Militancy in Pakistan’s northwest is also seen as a conscious effort by the purported American-Israeli-Indian alliance to undermine Pakistan’s stability.

Late last year, a former Army chief Mirza Azam Beg startled many by alleging that U.S. forces airlifted Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan chief Hakimullah Mehsud to Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, following a military offensive in South Waziristan. Many also believe that suicide bombers are trained by the U.S. and Indians, as the TTP does not have the capacity to generate these attackers. In April, a senior leader of mainstream religious party Jamaat Islami (JI) blamed Blackwater for a suicide attack on its rally in Peshawar and asked the Pakistani government to stop cooperating with U.S. Many Pakistanis — and the Taliban, incidentally — attribute the worst suicide bombings in Pakistan to Blackwater. None of these allegations have ever been proven true.

With the wash of conspiracy theories floating around in the Pakistani media, it is little surprise that 59 percent of Pakistanis view the U.S. as the greatest threat for Pakistan, followed up by 18 percent for India and a mere 11 percent for the Taliban. It is impossible to escape the irony of the Taliban enjoying more trust from the Pakistani public, after claiming deadly suicide attacks across the country, than the United States, which reimburses Pakistan more than $1 billion a year for military operations and has promised $7.5 billion over the next five years in nonmilitary aid.

To help counter this flood of conspiracy, the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty launched a Pashtu-language radio station called Radio Mashaal in January of this year, to supplement the reach of Voice of America’s Dewaa Radio in 24/7 coverage of the region. (VOA’s partnership with the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, incidentally, was described by The Nation as the Pakistani government “allow[ing] the United States to expand its Afghanistan-based media propaganda network…in a clandestinely signed deal that is bound to generate more anger when the Pakistani government that is yet to fully recover from accusations of a sellout to intrusive American aid conditions.”) VOA also airs an Urdu-language news program five days a week on Geo News, Pakistan’s biggest television network. VOA’s Urdu radio broadcasts 12 hours a day of news to millions on Radio Aap ki Dunyaa, and claims almost 12 percent of the population listens or watches its Urdu programs. And the U.S. embassy in Islamabad has for nearly nine months issued “Corrections for the Record” a few times a month to combat the persistent mythology in Pakistan’s press. But further U.S. efforts to counter misconceptions in the Pakistani press could easy fall prey to a single conspiracy theory.

First appeared in the AfPak Channel


Kashmir: A forgotten tragedy

October 29, 2009

“Kashmir calls back, its pull stronger than ever, its whispers its fairy magic to the ear and its memory disturbs the mind.”
-Jawaharlal Nehru

During Maharaja Ranjit Singh reign, three brothers, Gulab Singh, Suchet Singh and Dhian Singh acquired powerful influence at his court and Dhian Singh became his principal advisor and Sikh Durbar in Lahore rewarded them for their services to the empire. Jammu was given to Gulab Singh in 1920 as a fief (jagir); Dhian Singh was awarded with Poonch and small surrounding hilly states of Bhimber and Mirpur, as Alastair Lamb notes that the areas which fell in the Poonch state, “Coincides very closely with what in late 1947 was to become Azad Kashmir.”

During the First Anglo-Sikh war of 1845, Gulab Singh remained neutral and later by the Treaty of Amritsar March 16, 1846; British sold Kashmir (areas to the eastward of the river Indus and westward of the river Ravi) to the Maharaja Gulab Singh for around Rs 7.5 million.

The state at that time was stretched over an area of 84,471 square miles and Gulab Singh bought it at the rate of Rs 155 per square mile while he paid seven and half rupees for every inhabitant of the state. (SHAHB NAMA)

Gulab Singh was succeeded by his son Ranbir Singh in 1858 and Partap Singh followed him but he had no direct heir to the throne and during his last days his brother Amar Singh was serving as the chief minister while the state was under direct British supervision.

Maharaja Partap Singh considered Jagatdev Singh, son of his great granduncle Dhian Singh, the Poonch Raja, as ‘Spiritual Heir to Kashmir,’ but his brother Amar Singh, who was his chief minister at that time with the connivance of British nominated his son Hari Singh in 1925 as the new ruler of the state. The British had once rescued Hari Singh from blackmailing when he was in Landon and according to Alastair Lamb, “Partap Singh despite the approval of Chamber of Princes was overruled by the Political Department, which thought that Hari Singh, whose disreputable background might make him easier to manipulate, would prove a more amenable Maharaja.”

Thus began the most decisive period in the history of Indo-Pak and on October 26, 1947 Hari Singh singed the Instrument of Accession with Indian Union and on October 27, Indian troops entered Kashmir and a war broke out in 1948. The countries also fought two more wars in 1965 and 71 and a constant war posture as in 1990s the Kashmiris launched a guerilla movement to win their independence from India with Pakistan’s active backing and around 100,000 died during the resistance movement.

The situation radically changed after the 9/11 and Pakistan started to distance her from the Jihadi groups. The Kashmir almost disappeared from the government’s agenda as Jihadis and government lost their good terms under the intense US pressure. Pakistan honeymoon with the Kashmiri resistance groups has ended and so the rhetoric of political and moral support for their right to self-determination. President Musharraf’s eagerness to resolve the dispute also played an important role in boosting Indian position while his defensive attitude and internal problems made the Kashmir’s issue a forgotten tragedy.

Humor for the dispirited

October 26, 2009

Comic magazines are a rarity in Pakistan, despite having some of the best humorists in prose and poetry around. However, weekly Afratafreh, published from Peshawar is an attempt to fill such a huge void, amidst prevailing violence, despondency and gloom in the country. The comic magazine, which initially derives its name from a book of well known Urdu humorist Dr Mohammad Younas Butt, was brain child of some students of Department of Journalism and Mass Communication (JMC), University of Peshawar (UoP).

The idea took shape as a coloured handwritten news sheet, satirizing their class fellows, teachers and university authorities and appeared at the department notice board once a week. However, two of the students Hanifullah Khan and Shehla Gul went ahead with the idea of launching a full fledged comic magazine and started a magazine with the same name with a senior editor of a local daily Syed Zubair Ali Shah and its first edition appeared on July 23, 2008.

The 16 pages magazine is published on tabloid sized paper and consists of news items from newspapers which had been comically treated to add a new twist to the story, editorial, comic columns, education roundup, selection of cartoons, poetry, sports news as regular sections. “The idea of comic magazine come to me during my university days, when as a students of journalism students we discussed news items in the class, it occurred to me that being students of journalism, we should not treat news as common man,” Hanifullah said.

He said that the next day they started a notice board comic sheet, and later launched the magazine with an investment of Rs 300,000, which became an instant hit. At present we have around 3,000 permanent readers, who have subscribed to the magazine for six months and a year and it is growing with each passing day, he said. He said that the magazine is provided to the all Higher Education Commission (HEC) affiliated universities free of costs and major libraries across the country and claims that it is only comic magazine in the country. It is not something like a parallel media, but it is sort of entertainment for the people, in the midst of depressing news, says Zubair, who edits the paper.

Comic magazine came to Indian subcontinent following the Great Uprising of 1857, when the British raj enforced laws to rein the press like the ‘Gagging Act’ of June 18, 1857 and ‘Press and Registration of Books Act’ 1867 and ‘Vernacular Press Act’ of 1878. Munshi Sajjad Husain started the weekly Oudh Punch, a pioneer comic magazine from Lukhnow in 1877 and it remained circulation till 1912.

The country has a long line of famous names like Pitras Bokhari, Mushtaq Ahmed Yusafi, Shafiq-ur-Rehman, Col Mohammed Khan, Ibn-e-Insha, Mohammed Khalid Akhter, Zameer Jafri, Siddiq Salik and Ibrahim Jalees in the humorous writings and comic columns are a part of major Urdu newspapers. Similarly, Pakistan has a long list of humorist poets of stature like Dilawar Figar and Syed Zamir Jefri, however, the only thing of humorist poetry, which made a place of itself on the editorial pages of a newspaper was Qitta (quatrain/Limerick), which was introduced by Raees Amrohvi and soon it became a part of editorial pages of every Urdu newspaper.

The magazine is now available online at

The review first appeared in Daily Times, January 23, 2009

Bulleh Shah

October 1, 2009

Bulleh Shah, the greatest mystic poet of Punjab, had lived the most tumultuous period of the Sub-continent history during which Mughal dynasty jolted after Aurangezb’s death and his successors first fought each other for the Delhi’s throne and later the attack of Nadir Shah broke the back of Mughal’s rule in India. The subsequent events led to the ascendancy of the British.
Bulleh Shah’s real name was Abdullah Shah and he was born in 1680 at the Pandoke area in Qasur, where his father Sakhi Dervish was a local prayer leader.

He became a disciple of the Qasur’s famous teacher Hafiz Ghulam Murtaza and acquired a deep understanding of the Quran, Hadith (Traditions), Fiqh and Logic. Bulleh Shah was the disciple of the Shah Inayat Qadri Shatari who belonged to the Qadri tradition of the Sufis, which trace their origin to Syed Abdul Qadir Jilani of Baghdad. His affinity to his spiritual leader Shah Inayat grown to such an extent that the people started to taunt him saying that he is a Syed or of the Prophet’s family and Shah Inayat belongs to the Arian which is a lower caste, but he answered the rebukes and taunts of people by saying:

“Let anyone, who calls me a Sayyiad,
Be punished with tortures of hell,
And let him revel in the pleasures of heaven,
Who labels me an Arain” (Translation- J.R. Puri and T.R. Shangari)

Once some action of him annoyed Shah Inayat and it left him in great distress and his poetry is replete with the pain of separation from his master. He tried his utmost to repent his indiscretion but Shah Inayat was not ready to let it go that easy and in a frantic fit Bulleh Shah dressed like a female and reached a party in which his master was also present and started to dance and sing the famous Kafi, Teray ishq nachaya kar thai-ya thai-ya’:

Your love has made me dance all over.
Falling in love with you was supping a cup of poison.
Come, my healer, it’s my final hour.
Your love has made me dance all over (Translation-S.K Duggal)

When Shah Inayat learned it that Bulleh Shah was dancing, he forgave him and he was allowed to the coveted circle of his master.

In the words of K.S. Duggal,”when Aurangzeb banned singing and dancing as an un-Islamic practice, Bulleh Shah’s Master, Inayat Shah, is said to have advised him to go from village to village in the Punjab singing and dancing and thus defy the imperial injunction which Bulleh did with impunity.” He also became a part of what is called the feud between the Sufis and Orthodox Ulema and even when he died the Ulema refused to lead his funeral prayers. He ridicules the traditionalist Ulema in his poetry by saying:

The Mullahs and Qazis show me the light
Leading to the maze of superstition.
Wicked are the ways of the world
Like laying nets for innocent birds
With religious and social taboos
They have tied my feet tight. (Translation-K.S. Duggal)

He died in 1758 and is buried in Qasur and his Kafis are much popular across the Sub-Continent as compared to his own time as he had said in one of his couplet, Bulleh Shah asan marna nahi, gor paya Koi Hor” (It is not me in the grave, it is someone else.”

History, rulers and the Pakistani Way

August 10, 2009

Pakistan’s political history is littered with blood and shameful departures of rulers. Our rulers thrive on violence; orchestrate political farces to hoodwink the masses and are sent back home in the same manner. The recent cries for Musharraf’s persecution are a classical example this curse which has continually haunted Pakistani rulers since the creation of Pakistan.

Pakistan first premier Liaqut Ali Khan was gunned down in a Rawalpindi public meeting and his alleged killer also met the same end. The police officer investigating the case also perished in an air crash and with him also the traces that could point that who was the behind the assassination.

After Liaquat assassination, a crippled bureaucrat, Ghulam Mohammad assumed powers and is responsible for the many cancerous traditions in politics. The first dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and notorious “doctrine of necessity” are the parts of his shameful legacy. He was sent abroad during a serious illness but his legacy is still haunting us and will continue to do so in the years to come.

Another bureaucrat Skindar Mirza followed Ghulam Mohammad and brings the army in politics by admitting the Commander in Chief Mohammad Auyb Khan in his cabinet as defence minister. Later, Auyb deposed him and sent him to Britain, where the former president and his wife, when pressed by the circumstances started clerical jobs in a hotel and died and buried in that country.

Field Martial Mohammad Auyb Khan imposed the first martial law in country and abrogated the 1956 constitution in a fit of frenzy. He framed another constitution and changed the form of government to presidential and became president after a sham election. He fooled the masses for eleven years with slogans like ‘Operation Gibraltar’, ‘Basic Democracies’, ‘Green Revolution’ and the ‘Decade of Development.’ He had to step down after students’ protests in the country and to hand over power to Yahya Khan.

Gen. Yahya Khan, “drowned the two-nation theory,” and the East Pakistan in the Bay of Bengal in the Dakkha debacle of 1971 and spent rest of his days under house arrest.

Yahya handed over the reins of the country to the charismatic Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) after the fall of Dakkha and he became the first civil martial law administrator of the history. He introduced the slogans of ‘Islamic Socialism,’ ‘Roti, Kapra aur Makan,’ ‘1,000 years war’ and nationalization of the industries. He was put behind the bars after a coup and his dead body came out of the prison after a sham trial and was buried in the Ghari Khuda Bux cemetery under the shadow of bayonets in the darkness of night.

Ziaul Haq hanged ZAB and ruled the country for nearly 11 years on the name of Islam and flogging. His Islamisation and Afghan jihad backfired and resulted into the sectarianism, heroin and kalashinkove culture in the country. He perished along with his coterie in a mysterious plane crash on August 17, 1988.

Benazir Bhutto followed Zia and was sworn in as the first female head of the state of an Islamic country. Her first government was discharged on the charges of corruption. Her husband earned notoriety for corruption and was branded as the Mr. Ten Percent and her only brother Mir was gunned down in an encounter with police and later her government was dissolved for second time. She spent nearly seven years in exile and came back to the country in October 2007 and also survived a deadly suicide attack aimed at her during his homecoming rally. She was assassinated in a suicide and gun attack on December 27, 2007.

Nawaz Sharif was a product of Zia tyranny and a general arranged his entry into politics. His first government was dissolved when differences arose between the president and him. The Supreme Court later reinstated his government but the army had to intervene to break the deadlock and both the president and the premier had to pack up. He clashed with the judiciary and sent anther president home after axing his powers. Later, an airborne general put him behind bars when he tried to remove him. He spent nearly 18 months in a prison and was exiled to Saudi Arabia he also tried to make a comeback but again sent on exile forcibly but now he is trying to establish himself as man for all season.

General Musharraf aka the ‘enlightened despot’ imposed two martial laws during his eight-year rule. He crushed a rebellion from judiciary and sent around 60 judges to homes. During his rule the militancy drove the country to the brink of chaos. He has to doff off his uniform which he used to say as second skin under intense pressure. However, he had to resign due to his growing unpopularity among public some months back to the elections. Now, the many of political adversaries are demanding his prosecution for the abrogation of constitution.

President Zardari needs to remember George Santayana’s often aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” while swimming against the currents of Pakistani politics.

Peshawar: two tales of a city

July 6, 2009

Peshawar, sweltering with mercury soaring above 40 degrees centigrade, hours long power outages, and a new breed of marauding tribesmen called Taliban knocking at city’s gates seems to be submerged into a chaos, yet it is the same noisy and dusty city, it used to be throughout its history of more than 2000 years.

Roaming around when one reaches Qissa Khawni Bazaar (The story tellers’ bazaar) in the heart of the city, one could hear the Peshawarities sipping aromatic ‘Kewha’ in small china cups, and reacting anxiously to the terrorism. Qissa Khawni occupies a central place in the social and cultural life of Peshawar. In the by gone days, it used to be a camping ground for the caravans from Central Asia and Povindahs or Afghan traveling merchants, and at nights storytellers recited their stories of love and war to these travelers. However, during the metamorphosis of the city, the tradition of story telling gradually became a matter of memories only, and this historical bazaar also known as ‘Piccadilly of Central Asia’ become a bizarre mesh mash of ropes and barricades that have been put in place to guard against the unruly terrorists.

The same situation is visible in other parts of the city, where such obstacles replaced the city’s traditional demeanor of openness and hospitality. This reminds one of Ahmed Faraz couplet “Rafta rafta yehi zindan man badal jaatye han/ Ab kisi naaye shahr ki buniyad na daali jaaye,” “Gradually these (cities) turn into prisons, so no new city be laid out.”

On a walking distance from Qissa Khawni is situated Peshawar Museum, which bears testimony to the reign of Buddhism on the vast expanses of Ghandara. There are around 74 Buddha stories carved in stone are on display in Peshawar Museum, describing all happenings in his life. Emperor Kanishka, ruled the Kushan Empire from his capital Peshawar (Purushapura) in 78 AD, and Buddhism, took a new form of Mahayana Buddhism during his rule.

In 1530, the founder of Mughal Empire in India Baber passed through Peshawar and found a town by the name of Bagram, which was later renamed as Peshawar, which means “The Place at the Frontier,” by his grandson, Akbar, the Great Mughal. The Pathan conqueror of Mughal throne, Sher Shah Suri when connected Delhi and Kabul through Grand Trunk (GT) Road, Peshawar became an important trade centre. After Suri, Mughals again captured India and also Peshawar, and transformed it into the city of flowers adding many of its finest architectural monuments including Mahabat Khan Mosque and Shahi Bagh.

In 1834, the armies of Ranjit Singh captured the city; they chopped the city gardens for the firewood and General Paolo Di Avitabile, the then Italian mercenary governor of city used the mosque minarets to hang the troublemakers. He also reconstructed the city’s old wall to guard against the attacks of unyielding and ferocious tribesmen.

The British captured Peshawar in 1848, and turned it into a garrison and later also craved a new province NWFP, and Peshawar became its provincial capital. Peshawar remained an important imperial outpost during the ‘Great Game’ days against any possible Tsarist advances on India, which ironically came about 40 years after the liquidation of British Empire.

The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 exposed the city to an influx of Afghan refugees, and it became a haven of Afghan resistance groups, fighting the Russian occupation. During this era Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Jihadists and Pakistani military establishment formed close links to oust the ‘Godless Infidels’ from Afghanistan and a new chapter of city’s history opened, which introduced the city to Kalashnikovs, heroin and jihadists. The CIA financed Jihad led to departure of Soviets from Afghanistan, but the bad blood among jihadists led the country to strife, which ultimately paved the way for the emergence of Taliban. Taliban were ousted from Kabul in 2002 by the American for sheltering Osama Bin Laden, whom they considered responsible for the incidents of 9/11. The ouster of Taliban from Kabul with the active Pakistani support exposed the tribal areas of NWFP to a wave of militancy called Talibanistaion, which gradually spread across NWFP and now knocking at the city’s gates.

These tumultuous events and strifes’ over the centuries have shaped the psyche and cultural ethos of the people. According to the Karl Meyer’s The Dust of Empire, “Peshawar is the hub of a thriving black market in drugs and weapons, its slums and refugee camps the recruiting ground for jihadists who would happily kill every infidel anywhere.” In reality, one of greatest non-violent movements of history started in the Frontier in twentieth century and leader of Khudai Khidmatgar (Red Shirts) Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan raised a non-violent army of 100,000 men among the people, who love vendetta and guns more than anything else.

But the ongoing militancy and wounds it had inflicted on the psyche of city and its residents is a reminder of Urdu saintly poet Mir Dard’s couplet “Zindagi hai ya koi tufan hai/ ham tu iss jeenay kay haathon mar chalay” “Is it life or a raging storm/we have reaped nothing except death in our sojourn here”.

Pending peace

June 25, 2009

Swat cannot yet be considered a post-Taliban district.

The Pakistan Army has regained control over large swathes of territory in the Swat Valley earlier lost to the Taliban as well as recaptured the district capital Mingora with minimum damage. The operation, a significant one, began on 26 April in the Lower Dir district, was extended to the Buner district two days later and reached Swat a week later, on 8 May. In this manner, the military effectively blocked the entry of militants into Swat from other areas as well as curtailed threats of their sneaking out of the Valley.

Throughout the offensive, ground forces were supported by air and artillery units, often forcing the militants to retreat without offering much resistance. According to official sources, about 1300 militants were killed, among them the organisation’s second and third-tier leadership. Meanwhile, the government is said to be pursuing the senior Taliban leadership. (There were even unconfirmed reports of the killing of Maulana Fazlullah, also known as Radio Mullah, the chief of the Swat Taliban.) But all is not rosy and there are many questions still haunting the people of the Swat as well as Pakistanis from outside the district.

Before delving into the post-conflict issues requiring attention, it is important to remember that the military operation is far from over. There is still a Taliban presence in the area and the army has said that it will need to be on the offensive for approximately two more months. Asymmetrical warfare, such as that between the Taliban and the Pakistan Army, is invariably a protracted and complicated one. At this stage, the army cannot sustain the kind of heavy offensive seen in the last month for fear of arousing public disapproval over the extent of the damage done. But it also cannot stop the operation altogether at a time when its control over the area is both tentative and incomplete. The practical outcome of this quandary is that Swat will have a heavy military presence for some time to come. The military itself has said as much, claiming that it will need about a year to develop the civilian administrative structure, which is, unsurprisingly, in tatters.

Cleaning up Taliban lake
The foremost question, then, is whether the operation can bring sustainable peace to an area which has been in the flames of war for the past two years. On the ground, there is much pessimism about the prospect of peace through military means, a point of view reinforced by the survival of the top Taliban leadership. Most observers and locals believe that the elimination of foot soldiers, while  leaders roam free, cannot bring peace: the dispersed militants can always regroup to once again challenge the state. After all, three earlier operations did fail to eliminate the Taliban leadership in Swat with the militants emerging more powerful and gaining more territory every time. There was even a cartoon in the English daily Dawn in June 05 showing a lake, “Taliban lake” ,in which most of the small fishes had been netted, while the big ones continued to roam free.

Even if peace does return to Swat, that the insurgency has permanently changed the power dynamics of the district is undeniable. As the Taliban movement took root, the group’s cadres, who often belonged to the lowest income bracket, held great say over the lives of the public. Unsurprisingly, most of the influential families fled the area as the local security apparatus collapsed. Now, after the rout of the Taliban, the aggrieved citizens may well wish to take revenge on the Taliban cadre, and even their families. Called badal in Pashto, this concept of revenge is one of the dominant characteristics of any Pashtun society, and may lead to further bloodshed in the area. Indeed, badal may have been one of the factors leading to the collapse of the February peace deal. The Taliban were aware that once peace was restored to the area, they would have no excuses to carry their guns. In such a scenario, they would become the most vulnerable section of the society, easy targets to all those they had earlier wronged.

Next on the list of sensitive issues is the matter of the Niazm-e-Adl Regulations (NAR), or imposition of Sharia in Swat, which was negotiated with Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) leader Sufi Mohammad. The TNSM had lost much of its public appeal after its Afghan adventure in 2001. Sufi Mohammad himself was in prison following his return from Afghanistan, after most of his 10,000 fighters were either killed or captured by American and Northern Alliance forces. He was subsequently released in 2008, after renouncing violence. But the release is said to largely be a result of Islamabad’s attempt to use him to counter the growing Taliban influence in the NWFP. After the government concluded the ill-fated Nizam-e-Adl Regulations with Sufi Mohammed, he was hailed as a peacemaker. Now, government policy in the region has clearly shifted: On 4 June, security forces arrested several senior TNSM leaders. This puts a question mark over the future of Sharia in the area. Perhaps more importantly, it bring up the issue of the public’s lack of confidence in a state which appears to keep changing its mind on how exactly to deal with militancy.

Beyond Sharia, in the coming months, the public will be closely watching the government’s handling of the Swat refugees. Even with the fighting still continuing it is clear that this operation has also caused one of the largest displacement in the country’s history. Over two million people have left their homes for safer places due to the fighting, and caring for them will be a test for the government. Rehabilitating such a large number of people is a mammoth task. Any error on the part of the government would be political suicidal. The IDPs, understandably, bear little goodwill towards the Taliban. The government could therefore channel this feeling against militancy to its advantage. It will, however, be the loser if it fails to address their problems adequately.

Finally, it is crucial to consider the impact the Swat operation may have on other parts of the NWFP and the tribal areas. The army’s strategy of restricting the militants to a particular area during the fighting worked well in Swat as fighters from other areas could not come to aid their friends. The effectiveness of this operation will naturally convey to the militants a message that the military is serious in eliminating them. This will put them on the defensive, a significant turnabout in the status quo as the militants have been on the offensive since the insurgency began in the tribal areas and parts of NWFP. This recent success will also put a lid on rumours that the army was not sincere in eliminating the Taliban and will play an effective role in building national consensus against the tide of Talibanisation.

It goes without saying that a great deal is at stake in this ongoing battle for north-western Pakistan, including regional stability, the future of the ‘war on terror’ and, of course, the security of Pakistan. Fortunately, this time around, Islamabad and the Pakistan Army had the much-needed public approval for the operation. Both the government and the army need to understand that if they do not put this mandate to proper use, public support will not be forthcoming in the future. The repercussions of wasting this opportunity to bring peace are likely to disastrous, not only for Pakistan but also for the region and the world.

First appeared in Himal Southasian web exclusive on Swat.