analysis: Swat under siege —Abbas Rashid

24 01 2009

Source: Dailytimes

Both India and Pakistan do not seem optimally positioned in terms of internal dynamics to deal with the pressing issues they face. The dissensions within will allow the militants to secure even greater space

One indicator of the state of Swat is the fate of its schools. According to one estimate, over the last fortnight, around twenty schools have been burnt down — more than one a day on average. The total number of schools in Swat that have been destroyed has now exceeded 150. Most are girls’ schools. In fact, few schools in the area are actually functioning because of understandable concerns on the part of parents and teachers for the safety of the children.

There are doubts expressed sometimes as to who is responsible for this. Obviously, it is not possible to rule out the involvement of more than one element. But the Taliban have often enough made clear their aversion to girls’ education and the experience of their rule in Afghanistan provides ample testimony as to their determination in this regard.

But what are we doing about the havoc being wreaked in Swat?

Earlier this week members of parliament passed a resolution expressing solidarity with the people of the valley, pledging to “stand up for the protection of their rights in the face of the onslaught by non-state actors”.

We are not quite sure just how this will happen. On Thursday, President Asif Zardari met security chiefs and politicians to discuss the violence in Swat and elsewhere in the northwest, and said the government was following a “three D” policy of dialogue, development and deterrence.

The problem, however, is that dialogue and short-lived peace deals have been tried before, only to have the Taliban return to the area stronger than before. Development interventions are not possible unless preceded by peace and a modicum of stability. And so far, the fairly substantial presence of military and paramilitary forces in the area has somehow not deterred the Taliban from terrorising the people of Swat and FATA, forcing large numbers to leave their homes and flee the area. The majority of the police force is no longer performing its duties and even the security advisor suggested as much when he declared Thursday that the police would have to work at restoring their credibility.

But Swat is now in the grip of a broader Taliban-led insurgency challenging the writ of the state in FATA and increasingly in the settled areas of the NWFP. And a successful counter-insurgency strategy operation cannot be carried out by a demoralised police force. While the military and paramilitary forces have carried out successful operations in the area, there is a general sense that the initiative still rests very much with the Taliban who seem to be running short neither of arms, men or money in what is nothing less than an unrelenting drive to take effective control over large areas of Pakistan and force millions of its citizens to do their bidding.

An ISPR spokesman Wednesday blamed the situation in the area partly on the two months of truce agreed by the new provincial government with the militants, giving them a chance to regroup and tighten their grip. That may be so. Earlier, this was a strategy followed by the military under President Pervez Musharraf as well.

Now, again, the federal government has sought the services of JUIF chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman to negotiate with the Taliban. It is unlikely that the latter will agree to anything less than exercising effective control in large parts of the NWFP and imposing their own version of sharia that, among other things, rules out education for women and polio shots for children.

Clearly, a negotiated peace is the best option but it should not be a synonym for the surrender of the writ of the state. In the alternative, force has to be judiciously but effectively used to restore confidence in a terrorised populace. And while the Maulana may be the right person to negotiate with the Taliban, he might need reminding that his party lost in the last elections, held less than an year ago, and the ANP and the PPP won convincingly in the area: it says something about the preferences and aspirations of the people as opposed to those of the militants and terrorists.

Meanwhile, there is a level of uncertainly created by the fallout from the bomb blasts that killed so many innocent people in Mumbai last November. As the threats from India mounted, Pakistan made it clear that it would move troops fighting the insurgency to its eastern border and some were reportedly redeployed.

A major redeployment would obviously provide the Taliban with the opportunity to consolidate their gains and advance further. But, the pressure from India now seems to be receding and with the new US administration headed by Barack Obama, it is likely that there will be an attempt to put a regional initiative in place with regard to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Richard Holbrooke has been reported as Obama’s choice for the position of US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan But an important part of his mandate could be Pakistan-India relations as well. President Obama spoke during his campaign about the need to resolve the Kashmir issue and the recent remarks made by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband are indicative of the thinking in western capitals that a ‘regional’ solution may not be entirely possible without some kind of a settlement on Kashmir.

Pakistan, for its part, has made it clear that it will go along with any settlement acceptable to the Kashmiris, while India remains deeply suspicious of any third party involvement as indicated yet again by its sharp reaction to the Miliband’s remarks. However, India needs to resolve the Kashmir issue not for Pakistan but for itself just as Pakistan has to meet the challenge posed by the Taliban in FATA and the NWFP not in support of the US war on terror, but for its own integrity and survival as a nation-state.

For now, however, both India and Pakistan do not seem optimally positioned in terms of internal dynamics to deal with the pressing issues they face. The dissensions within will allow the militants to secure even greater space. To deal effectively with the growing menace of militancy and terrorism, both countries need to allow for a regional approach to the issue.

Abbas Rashid lives in Lahore and can be contacted at abbasrh@gmail.com

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