Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Swat's burning questions By Nasim Zehra

Swat's burning questions
The News, January 14, 2009
Nasim Zehra

In Swat terror and fear are spreading. Government employees, including policemen, teachers and LHVs, walk around with resignations in their hands. In case they are accosted by armed militants opposed to the government and to women working they can produce these resignations to avoid being kidnapped, killed or punished. To avoid becoming targets of militants' wrath the LHVs are announcing through advertisements in local newspapers like Azadi that they have resigned.

People are terrorised. In addition to occasional high-profile political killings, in about the last three weeks targeted killings have also begun. The militants are killing people, slitting their heads and then keep their heads on their bodies and order that no one remove the bodies before midday. Policemen, social activists, ordinary citizens, political people and citizens have been killed.

Even in Mingora city people at work lock their doors.

Terrorised by the deteriorating security conditions at least 200,000 of Swat's 1.7 million population have left Swat. The local influentials who can financially and socially afford the exit option have exited. Major political families from Swat, including that of an ANP provincial minister from Matta, the Nazim of Swat's family and families of most ANP and PML-Q elected representatives. Union council ward level officeholders are giving in their resignations.

The civil administration, even in urban Swat, including Mingora, Kuzabandi, Imamdheri, Chaharbagh, Barikot and Saidu Sharif, is non-existent.

Curfew is imposed on Swat between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the army and whatever is left of the police, is present in the city. At sundown for fear of travelling in the dark people begin heading home. Even in the army's presence people are scared. Journalists operate in total fear. According to one: "I have fear that if I talk to anyone it may go to the militants."

Burning of schools was unheard of in Swat and over 200 have been torched. The main source of livelihood for the locals, hotel and tourism, is at a complete standstill, if not almost destroyed.

In this acutely volatile and deteriorating security situation people's mobility is greatly restricted. Main bridges and main roads are either closed down or with excessive security checking vehicles' movement takes place at snail's pace. People complain that check posts are set up merely add to people's inconvenience without ever nabbing any militants.

Movement to Mingora from Matta and Khawaza khela is impossibly tedious. Similarly, movement on the Sangota side from Shangal to Khawaza Khela and from Mingora to Kalam valley has also become very difficult, especially after the suicide bombing.

The question that most residents of Swat may well ask is what, after all, has the army's presence done for the security of the locals? Despite the army's presence the situation has deteriorated. The army maintains the ANP's post-election accord with the militants gave them time to regroup and re-strengthen themselves.

The ANP also maintains the negotiations did not succeed because the army did not let the ANP honour the agreements in the accord. For example, release of militants. The army was dead against release of "criminals." The ANP recalls release of militants by the army to secure release of its own soldiers captured by militants in Waziristan. The army leadership also cynically questioned how those who were killing civilians would help the civilian administration "uphold the writ of the State."

The ANP believes, and perhaps correctly, that as a political force it had to give dialogue a chance. However, that dialogue has not yielded peace. The Army and ANP's inability to devise a unified approach towards dialogue must have contributed to the strengthening of the militants. Meanwhile, the non-political locals, including social activists, media personnel and influentials who were mindful of their own experiences, were complaining since the beginning of 2008 that the militants have an agenda which they will not give up as part of any peace deal with the ANP. They wanted closure of schools, women being kept away from any public space including schools. Throughout 2008 many complained the militants strengthened themselves. Weapons gathering by the militants was unstoppable, as was their free movement in and around and to and from Swat. In Swat people kept complaining that weapons were flowing into the city, but no one stopped the flow.

They complain the ANP never understood the nature of the problem while the army never went after them but in a half-hearted manner. Militants kept expanding influence, beyond Matta. Many complain that with two army check posts the militants moved freely between them.

Many argue that the army's strategy has never made sense to the locals because they have never managed to weaken the militants. For example, the army had people vacate Kuzabanday and Kabal. Then they bombarded their houses. There were minimal casualties and after the operation essentially the militants walked away, intact and undiminished. The population returned to the destroyed houses.

Some cynics complain the army is standing there and mostly protecting the militants. "When the army is there and the militants there too, but no action taken against the militants. What should we understand?" complained a resident from Swat now in Islamabad.

The army, many from Swat now in Peshawar complain, did not protect those who stood up against the Taliban. For example, a Khan near Peuchaar, who was opposed to the Taliban about two weeks ago. Five hundred Taliban surrounded his house. He and his son fought them through the night and then were finally killed. The calls to the army for help went unheard. The Army was stationed a couple of miles away.

Similarly there are other stories that the locals narrate. For example, about the Gujjars fighting the militants and the army, which was only 200-300 yards away, not protecting them. The army present told the Gujjars we have no orders so we cannot fight. Hence the Gujjar community opposed the militants and they were killed because the army provided them no protection and no support. Two or three weeks ago the local Peer was killed. He opposed the militants, and they killed him. After he was buried by his own people, the militants came and pulled his body out of the grave and hung it. The army was a few hundred yards away and calls were being made for help.

Public conjectures are endless and varied: the army has no will to go after the militants, the ANP is following the American line, the army and the militants are one, the army is trapping the ANP, the Police, the FC and the local citizens are being killed while the army is safe, if the army leaves the locals can make compromises with the militants and be in peace, the army is anyway scared of the militants; is it "scared" because it fears casualties, it does not understand the nature of the threat, etc.

Clearly the Pakistanis of Swat have zero faith in the institutions of their own country. Can we blame them?

The writer is an Islamabad-based security analyst. Email:

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