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.