Amid all the confusion surrounding the Pakistan army’s month-long campaign against the Taliban or whoever they are fighting in Swat and Malakand, the only certainty is that it has created nearly 2.5 million refugees, dubbed internally displaced persons (IDP). Before the launch of army operations on April 26, people were ordered to leave their homes immediately. As hundreds of thousands of people streamed out of their towns and villages, most with little except the clothes on their backs, the government announced they would be housed in camps set up for this purpose and looked after well until the area was cleared of militants. Appeals for help have also been made to international donors. United Nations officials have confirmed that there are 1.5 million new refugees bringing the total to 2 million with half a million already from Bajaur. On May 21, an international donors’ conference in Islamabad reportedly pledged $224 million for the IDP. Already cynics are saying much of the aid money, if it ever materializes, will end up in the pocket of corrupt officials as happened following the October 2005 earthquake disaster.
A month into the operation, not all refugees have been registered. This is not merely the result of bureaucratic incompetence; reports from the area indicate that some of the most corrupt officials notorious for stealing money and resources have again been put in charge of such operations. They had stolen millions of dollars during the decades-long Afghan refugee saga; now they are applying that experience with even greater vigor to stealing from their own people. Frustration is quickly giving way to anger as people find themselves without food, water or proper shelter in the sweltering heat that reaches 42–45ºC during the day. Several deaths have already occurred in the camps and if the conditions continue to deteriorate, disease will quickly spread. As temperatures soar, so will tempers and while most people appear supportive of military action so far, this can quickly dissipate as their miseries multiply. A fertile breeding ground for militants will be the thousands of students who have been unable to complete their exams because of fighting. This will prevent them from securing admission in universities next September. In a country with already a low literacy rate and youth unable to secure admission into university, frustration will build up. This together with civilian casualties because of military operations has the potential to lay the foundations for a future uprising and more bloodletting.
The military operation is concentrated in Swat, Shangla, Lower Dir and Buner. Imamdheri, the madrassa run by Maulana Fazlullah, head of the militants and son-in-law of Maulana Sufi Muhammad, as well as Peochar, the militants’ headquarters, have also been bombed. None of the militant leaders, however — Sufi Muhammad, Fazlullah, Muslim Khan, Shah Dawran, Mehmood Khan and Ibne Amin — has been killed. While Sufi Muhammad is believed to be hiding in Chakdarra, the rest are said to be in Peochar, a locality surrounded by dense forests, where several training camps are located. Sufi Muhammad’s son-in-law and one of his 12 sons were killed in an air strike but the rest are still at large.
According to the military, Pakistani commando units were dropped on hills in Niag Darra, Karo Darra and Turmang Darra areas surrounding Peochar on May 12. Some 1,200 troops backed by tanks and artillery reached Turmang Darra in Upper Dir but Migora, the main town in Swat, remains under Taliban control. There are also believed to be nearly 10,000 residents still trapped there. Troops have also taken up positions on rooftops along the Timergara-Peshawar road. The military claims to have killed 1,000 militants, a figure that is difficult to verify since journalists and independent observers are barred from the area. There is widespread skepticism that the figure is not only exaggerated but that most of the casualties may be civilians. Further, if 1,000 militants are dead, at least four times as many must have been wounded, a standard ratio in battlefield casualties. Given that the Taliban’s total strength is estimated at 4,000 to 5,000, the question is: who is fighting the military that has deployed 15,000 troops backed by artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships?
Despite claiming that fighting the militants is Pakistan’s “problem”, the reality is it has been forced by the Americans at gun point. There is nothing new in this. Unable to withstand US pressure, successive Pakistani rulers are forced to act in return for a fistful of dollars that often proves disastrous for the country. Between 2004 and 2006, a similar policy was forced on Pakistan in Waziristan that turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. Since early 2006, American drones have been attacking Pakistani villages, especially in North and South Waziristan that has killed 800 villagers and only 14 militants, according to the New York Times (May 11/09).
Publicly, Pakistani officials protest such attacks and say they are not helpful but it is widely known that the drones take off from Pakistani airfields. In case of Swat operations, these were forced on Pakistan by the Americans under the threat that if the Pakistan military did not take action, the Americans would move in. The spectre of American ground troops attacking and killing Pakistani villagers would have created an explosive situation that would quickly have led to an insurrection throughout the rest of Pakistan. Neither the Americans nor the Pakistanis could have contained that situation. But is the present approach any better?
There is little doubt that initially the Pakistan army will make some gains against the militants but what exactly is its overall plan? It is easy to launch an operation but ending it will not be in its control. How long will this operation last: two months, two years or decades and what will be the consequences of such action? What guarantee is there that this will not create more militants resulting in future attacks throughout the country, including the capital Islamabad?
It was the commando assault on the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July 2007 in which some 1,400 students, most of them girls from Swat and Dir, were killed that created the mess in Swat. The longer the Swat operation lasts, the greater the likelihood that militancy will spread to the rest of Pakistan. There are already disturbing signs of trouble in Karachi where the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), notorious for criminal behavior throughout much of its history, is getting ready for a fight with the Pashtuns (Pathans). The MQM that claims to represent the interests of the muhajirs (immigrants from India in 1947) brands them as “outsiders” by labeling them as Taliban! Militant groups are also well entrenched in areas like Dera Ghazi Khan, Multan and lower Punjab because of a vast network of madrassas. Under pressure from the US, the army may have gotten involved in a problem from hell.
Pakistan’s tragedy is that it has no leaders of stature or vision. Asif Ali Zardari, the country’s president, is not fit even to run a cinema from where he made his debut into business, much less running a country as complex as Pakistan. He entered politics only because of his marriage to Benazir Bhutto, a story of intrigue in itself. Her murder in December 2007 opened the way for Zardari to become president. A venal character, he is widely despised as a thief. The rest of the political leadership as well as the military do not offer much hope either. The army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani is projected as a professional soldier, and he may well be, but the fact that he is seen as too close to the Americans — Ad-miral Mike Mullen, the US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff calls him a friend and has publicly stated that he has great confidence in him — is worrying. When the Americans say they like someone that is a sure sign of trouble. They are nobody’s friends.
Three persons seem to exert great influence on decision-making in Pakistan: Kiyani as army chief, the most powerful man in the country; Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington Hussain Haqqani; and advisor for internal security, Rehman Malik (dubbed Shaitan Malik by critics). Haqqani is very close to the American neocons whose agenda he seems to be pushing in Pakistan, while Malik is reportedly working for British intelligence, MI6. The rest of the political crowd is made up of self-serving feudal lords and industrial barons whose sole purpose in life has been to steal the country’s wealth. How can Pakistan make progress with such people at the helm of affairs?
The ruling elite seem to blunder into one crisis after another without displaying the slightest hint how to solve any problems. Under their control, Pakis-tan’s problems have become more intractable. They have two overriding concerns: to stay in power by appeasing the Americans; and to continue to use that to plunder the country’s resources. A more incompetent bunch would be hard to imagine.
May Allah (SWT) help Pakistan but even He may have turned His back on these absolute munafiqs.