COMMENTARY
 
Army Operation in Swat: Turning Calamity into Opportunity
Weekly Pulse
May 15-21, 2009
As the security operation against Taliban-led insurgents and terrorists in Swat Valley, Dir and Buner mountains intensifies, the human cost of conflict has become critical: each day, thousands more flee from the conflict zone to add to the tens of thousands of Internally-Displaced Persons’ stranded population in areas adjacent to Swat Valley and elsewhere in the Frontier province and the rest of the country. Government estimates suggest that close to a million people have already become homeless since the Swat operation began on May 6—many of them have yet to register themselves as refugees.

Such a staggering level of human suffering caused by the worsening conflict was unavoidable. In the case of the ongoing security operation in Swat and adjoining areas, this had to happen when the operational commanders sealed off the conflict zone, urged people inhabiting it to vacate the territory, imposed an indefinite curfew and began an intensive military campaign in the past over two weeks. The commanders had to take all of these decisions, whatever their unintended consequences might be in the days to come, simply because the insurgents and terrorists had extended and spread their illegitimate and immoral writ to settled areas of the conflict zone.

Refugee Crisis

This is the principal dilemma that any counter-insurgency campaign, be it in Pakistan or anywhere in the world, has to confront, especially if the task is to manage a militant movement which is partly guerrilla and partly terrorist. As Army spokesman Maj Gen Athar Abbas stated in his press briefing on May 12, the primary objective of the “slowly moving” security operation at this initial stage was to “separate the insurgents from the population.”

However, he said the army had yet to begin the "hardcore urban fight" for Swat's towns. The same day, as part of the "search and destroy" missions, army helicopters para-dropped commandos in the remote Piochar area in the upper reaches of the Swat valley, known as the rear-base of an estimated 4,000 Taliban militants. The area is seen as a possible hiding place of Maulana Fazlullah, militant leader of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi, the pro-Taliban group fighting for the enforcement of Shariah in the Malakand Division since mid-1990s.

As of May 12, the army claimed to have killed 751 militants in Swat and neighboring districts, while losing 29 of its own soldiers. Military sources put the total number of internal refugees at 1.3 million, including half a million who had fled fighting in the Bajur border region last year. The UN has registered 501,000 refugees from the latest fighting. About 73,000 are living in hot, tented camps established just south of the war zone.

Rare Opportunity

Ever man or woman, old and young, fleeing the conflict zone is confronting a situation not of his or her choosing. It is only the ones overnight becoming refugees in their own country who can understand the agony of an extremely precarious and uncertain life as refugees. The old and the sick, and particularly the children, are usually in a very perilous state in such times. What is required of those who run the government during such circumstances is to forget every other thing and concentrate on taking care of these hapless victims of the conflict.

It is, therefore, quite tragic and unfortunate that the civilian government, the Frontier as well as the Federal, has not responded to the evolving human calamity as it should have. Local civil society activists have started generating funds for the latest victims of terrorism. Private television channels are also contributing to this campaign, with one of them actually running a whole-day telethon transmission for the purpose. Consequently, the governmental response to the tragedy also seems to be gaining momentum.

In fact, a well-chalked out governmental plan to manage the human cost of the conflict should have already been in place before the security operation in lower Dir, Buner and Swat began. Almost all recent studies about counter-insurgency campaigns to combat terrorism suggest that the ultimate objective of such campaigns should not be confined merely to the physical elimination of the insurgents who employ terrorism as a tactic; rather, its ultimate aim should be to win over the population of the areas where such insurgents operate.

Now if President Asif Ali Zardari is away from the country for nearly three weeks, during which each day will create thousands of more internal refugees, then the possibility of the ongoing security operation becoming politically counter-productive for the civilian democratic forces and the state establishment in the longer-run cannot be ruled out. Like President Zardari, a number of crucial members of the Federal government have also chosen to be outside the country at this critical juncture.

Civilian Ownership

It was good that Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani assumed the civilian government’s ownership of the security operation, when he addressed the nation on May 7. He said the army was being called into Swat “to restore the honour and dignity of our homeland.” “We will destroy those elements who have destroyed the peace of our people and our nation,” the Prime Minister declared.

One of the lingering issues since the current government came into power over a year ago has been its reluctance to own the country’s counter-terrorism campaign. The civilian leadership did urge the security forces during this period to undertake resolute security operations against terrorist-insurgents in Bajur and other areas of the tribal belt, and it did consistently talk about the War on Terror as having become Pakistan’s own war. But much of what was said in the past was rhetorical in nature.

However, even if the civilian leadership now effectively owns the security operation—which was a natural expectation of an army embroiled in conflict and consequently facing a societal image problem—a natural next stage of such an ownership is that it should go beyond declaratory intent. Such intent was clearly manifested in the sort of expressions used by the Prime Minister in his speech, and the remarks about the Swat operation he has been making since then. The need of the hour, however, is to undertake all possible emergency measures for a comprehensive relief operation to help internal refugees.

The relief mission must go hand in hand with the security mission. It must entail taking good care of the internally-displaced people, and not leaving this task to UNHCR or local and foreign NGOs alone. For if the government was able to win the hearts and minds of these hapless people, then whatever grievances they have had in the past can be sufficiently addressed. The information thus far available from the refugee camps suggests that people displaced by conflict are as much against the government for its failure to provide them security as they are against Taliban for creating the sort of law and order quagmire which necessitated the security operation.

Positive Factors

This is a sea change from the recent past, when, most certainly due to coercion by Taliban, the public opinion in the current conflict zone was predominantly critical of the government. There is also a sea change in the national public opinion: not many people have come out in the streets to demonstrate against the security operation. The clerics are voicing their concern, but not to the extent of urging a nation-wide strike or protest.

Even Jama’at-e-Islami’s campaign is targeted more at the Americans and their drone attacks rather than the Pakistan army and its use of artillery and air power against Taliban forces. PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif visited the refugee camps in Mardan and, without naming the Taliban, held them responsible for the security operation and the consequent human tragedy.

In fact, what turned the people against Taliban are the excesses committed by the latter even in the aftermath of the peace agreement in Swat and the declaration of Nizam-e-Adl. Everyone saw what Taliban were actually up to, when they started to undertake expansionist ambitions immediately after the declaration of Nizam-e-Adl. Given that, Taliban by themselves created the context and the justification for the security operation.

The government has to capitalize upon this rare opportunity available at the time of conflict. It should be embarrassing for Prime Minister Gilani to see Mr Sharif and his wife taking the lead in comforting the victims of conflict. He should have wasted no time in reaching out to them at their doorstep, rather than merely announcing a special package for their relief while addressing the nation.

Urgent Need

The refugee crisis is still evolving, and the governmental leadership should have the vision and the foresight to start tackling it at this stage. Otherwise, the danger is that this very population of refugees may generate yet another wave of jihadis. We must understand that the lingering refugee crisis is one of the reasons for the continuing Afghan tragedy, and the growth in Taliban-led insurgency across the Durand Line.

As for the security operation, the restoration of peace in Mingora city and other towns of the Malakand Division, and their liberation from Taliban is an issue that has to be tackled urgently. For this will ensure the safe return of the displaced population to Mingora and other towns and villages of Malakand Division. The rest of the fighting can continue in the mountain, as there is no escape from it.

The security forces have not option but to “expel and eliminate” Taliban insurgents and terrorists. Once the areas held by them are vacated, the next step should be to hold the territory and pave the way for resettling and rehabilitating the Internally-Displaced Persons so that the final leg of the counter-insurgency strategy—that of developing the war-ravaged region—could take place.

In sum, the real success of this battle will not be how many Taliban insurgents and their foreign terrorist collaborators the troops kill, but whether the government will be able to complement the military dimension of its counter-insurgency campaign with a host of political, humanitarian and economic incentives to turn the sympathies of the population of the conflict zone in its favour.