Pakhtunkhwa Times

Desperate moves on to secure Swat — the lost valley

Posted in ANP, Army role, Swat by ppfcanada on January 21, 2009

Thursday, 15 January 2009
Desperate moves on to secure Swat — the lost valley
By Ismail Khan

SWAT, known for its green meadows, gushing river and snow-capped
mountains, has unfortunately come to relive its historic name, Suvastu
— the white serpent — whose tenacity and viciousness has stung the
political and military leadership so badly that both are now looking
for new ways to put a lid on the monster of growing bloodshed and
reclaim its fast-shrinking territory.

The idyllic valley has gone really bad, its image distorted beyond
recognition. Pakistan’s most popular tourist destination is now
haunted by death and fear; few officials now dare to go and serve
there.

Nearly 800 policemen — half of the total sanctioned strength of police
in Swat, have either deserted or proceeded on long leave on one
pretext or the other.

Only one of the 600 police recruits trained by the military at the
Punjab Regimental Centre in Mardan, volunteered to go and serve, while
the others plainly refused to head to what is now being called the
‘valley of death’.

The second phase of the military operation Rah-i-Haq in July last to
regain control of the northern district of the North-West Frontier
Province appears to have made little headway.

Many analysts agree that the state writ has shrunk from Swat’s
5337square kilometre area to the limits of its regional headquarters
of Mingora — a city of 36 square kilometres.

Indeed, local residents say militants routinely carry out patrolling
in Mingora, where its central square, the Green Chowk, came to be
known as ‘Chowk Zebahkhana’ or the slaughter square.

Just last month, militants dumped 27 bodies with a warning not to
remove the corpses before 11 am. This coupled with sniper attacks
forced the traffic cops to refuse duty in the city centre, prompting
the military to impose a night curfew in the city, whose population
has swelled in recent months for relative security.

Targeted killings have increased and those showing defiance were made
examples for others. Pir Samiullah, who had taken on the militants,
was killed and his body hung from a pole before it was removed and
buried.

Pir’s death and the government’s inability and helplessness to respond
in real-time and support him, is perhaps the last nail in the coffin.
Officials acknowledge that encouraging and organizing popular support
against the militants now is a pipe dream.

Civilian deaths

Contributing further to the already grim scenario is the growing
negative public perception of the military operation that they say has
killed more civilians than militants.

This public perception has been reinforced by rising civilian
casualties, shrinking state authority, militants’ ability to strike
anywhere and any time and military’s over-reliance on long-range
artillery than putting boots on the ground.

No credible data is available to estimate the number of civilian
casualties in the seven-month-old operation due to police absence in
most militant-controlled areas and therefore, the resultant lack of
reporting. But police officials say the figure ran in hundreds.

The damage caused to property and infrastructure since the emergence
of militancy in Swat has been evaluated at Rs3 billion, according to a
senior government official, as militants blow up bridges and schools.
The number of schools blown up or torched now stands at 181 – the
highest perhaps in any insurgency anywhere in the world in an area as
small as Swat.

The battle for the airwaves in Swat has taken a new turn. Radical
cleric Maulana Fazlullah is back on the air but even his radio has
proved to be too weak against his lieutenant Shah Doran whose
broadcastes are heard far and wide, thanks to a 500 KV transmitter to
defeat government’s efforts to jam his sermons.

The government now plans to overcome the problem by setting up a one
megawatt transmitter that, it believes, would effectively silence the
militant radio propaganda.

With state authority on the wane in Swat, relationship between the
political and military leadership also took a sharp plunge.

Frustration is mounting within the ANP. On December 18, at a
parliamentary party meeting at the chief minister’s house, seven of
its lawmakers from Swat threatened to resign. “They were very
depressed,” said a senior party leader present in the meeting.

Predictably, the issue came up again for discussion at a cabinet
meeting the following day, followed by public criticism by Information
Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain that the government was “not satisfied
with the military operation”.

Not a child’s play

An interview to a private television channel by senior party leader
Hashim Babar accusing the security establishment of fomenting
militancy, rubbed more salt into the wounds, sources within the ANP
and security establishment acknowledge.

“The military was not happy,” a party official admitted. The ANP MPA
from Swat, Mr Ayub Ashari, was called and given a piece of mind, as
one official put it: “We have lost 142 men in Swat since July last.
This is not child’s play. This is no friendly match,” a visibly angry
security official said.

The ANP leaders defend their public statements and one of whom said:
“When you see that the operation is not effective and is going on and
on, causing more collateral damage, then how can you remain
indifferent?”

“The militants have taken over Fata and now they want to take over the
province. It’s clear. So should we remain silent and play second
fiddle?” he asked. “We have been constrained to re-think our support
to the military operation,” he said.

Security officials say that the political leadership at the helm was
also to blame for failing to put in place a civil administration that
responds to public needs and generate public support.

“We should have had the back-up support from the police and the civil
administration which is not there. This has put us on the back foot,”
the security official said.

“It’s a tough area and when you operate in an area where you don’t
know who the enemy is and who your friends are, it makes things a lot
more difficult,” he said.

But before things could reach breaking point, Army Chief Gen Ashfaq
Parvez Kiyani intervened. On December 25, in a meeting with the army
chief, the political leadership agreed to overcome its differences
with the military high command and devise a new strategy.

Shariah law

But that may leave another issue unaddressed. Both sides are piqued
that the federal government was also dragging its feet on the
amendments proposed in the so-called Shariah regulation promulgated in
1999.

The amendments, part of the May 2008 agreement with the militants in
Swat, say the ANP leaders are central to helping restore peace in
Malakand Provincially-Administered Tribal Area, of which Swat is a
district.

President Asif Zardari returned the summary containing the proposed
amendments with observations.

“Being head of a secular liberal party, he is worried that introducing
Shariah in Malakand would harm his international image,” they said.

“What we are trying to do is to convince him that we are not enacting
a new law. These are amendments to a law that already exists,”
explained the senior ANP leader.

The new strategy, however, has already been put in motion. While the
NWFP government awaits Mr Zardari’s approval to the amendments, it is
working on a public statement that would commit the government to
introduce Islamic judicial system in Malakand.

The statement – a suggestion by octogenarian Sufi Muhammad – is still
in the works and does not include a time-frame. In return, the head of
the banned Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi, has offered to leave
his protest camp at Timergarah in native Dir and go to Swat to
convince the militants to lay down their arms.

“I am an old man. I know I may be killed in the process but it’s worth
the sacrifice,” a source privy to behind-the-scene negotiations quoted
him as saying.

The security official concurred. “Whether the government introduces
the amendments or issues a public statement, it would deny the
militants the moral high ground of fighting for Shariah.”

Simultaneously, the government is also working, albeit quietly, to
incorporate some of Sufi Muhammad’s suggestions in the proposed
amendments to make it more acceptable to him and strengthen his hands
vis-à-vis the militants.

New strategy

The military, meanwhile, has begun to implement the new strategy since
last week which, it says, would focus more on consolidating and
securing the main supply routes and urban and rural centres “by
putting more boots on the ground.”

Presently, it has four brigades in Swat including one from Rawalpindi
overseen by a GOC (General Officer Commanding). “We have made some
adjustments and we should be okay with it,” the official said.

To begin with, the military is gearing up to secure Mingora and its
outer-parameters.

For its part, the government has agreed to depute three MPAs from Swat
to set up a secured camp office in Mingora to touch base with their
electorate and garner the essential public support.

But analysts say that while there has to be a more concerted and
focussed military operation to overcome the militancy, the government
too needs to devise a back-up socio-economic development plan to put
in place once an area is cleared and returned to the civil
administration.

“This is a fight to defend a state system. There is growing cynicism
amongst the people in Swat whose feeling of helplessness has been
compounded by the state to provide security and social service
delivery. This is where we all have to act, the sooner the better. The
blame-game is not going to take us anywhere,” a senior official said.
(Dawn)

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