Those armchair warriors — and there’s no shortage of them out here — who are wringing their hands over the Swat accord should ask themselves whether the government had any alternative. Necessity, and iron necessity at that, is the mother of this accord. The authorities were left with no other option because the Swat Taliban under the command of Maulana Fazlullah had fought the army to a standstill.
In Pakistan, as indeed elsewhere, sending in the army is the option of last resort. We had tried this option in Swat and it hadn’t worked. In fact the Taliban, far from being defeated, were in the ascendant, their grip on Swat tighter than before the operation began. The army was there, as it still is, taking distant artillery shots at the Taliban, and occasionally sending in helicopter gunships, but for all that confined largely to its bunkers.
Guerrilla insurgencies are not defeated by such long-range or long-distance tactics. So what was the ANP government in Peshawar to do?
It impressed upon the federal government and the army the need for declaring some kind of Sharia law for the Malakand division (of which Swat is a part) so as to take the wind out of the sails of the insurgency. This was the demand of Sufi Muhammad — Fazlullah’s father-in-law and the founder of the Tanzim Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (Movement for the imposition of Sharia) — and if it was accepted Sufi Muhammad could be induced to call upon the Taliban to lay down their arms, something he is already trying to do.
It needs little genius to figure out that the Americans would be upset by such a deal. President Asif Zardari, as the nation suspects only too well, is very much America’s man, as Pervez Musharraf was before him. But even he has had to go along with this deal because the deteriorating situation in Swat left no other choice. This has everything to do with what was possible, very little with Islam, Sharia or speedy justice.
Tired of all the killing, the people of Swat have welcomed this accord. Whether it survives or not — my hunch is that it won’t survive for long — it already has had the effect of pitting Maulana Sufi Muhammad against his son-in-law. Sufi Muhammad’s task is not easy, it being hard to persuade a victorious force to disarm voluntarily. Herein lie the seeds of discord between Sufi Muhammad and the Taliban.
So this is hardly capitulation. It is more like sensible politics, more like strategy, the indirect approach. When you can’t beat your opponent head-on, it is best to try a flanking manoeuvre, the continuation of war by other means, although I don’t think anyone in the Frontier government would have quite put it this way. Maulana Fazlullah can’t have been overjoyed by the reception received in Mingora by his father-in-law, Sufi Muhammad. So something that discountenances the Swat Taliban, something that puts them out of humour and plants suspicion in their minds, is it good or bad?
The Swat accord is certainly proving more effective against the Swat Taliban than anything done by the army. Armchair warriors and critics in distant lands should therefore hold their fire until they see this latest saga playing itself out fully. The government should be extra careful not to give the Taliban any excuse to break the accord. If they do so nevertheless, the onus will be upon them to justify the return to arms.
So whether Sharia law in the real sense is imposed in Malakand or not, it is in our interest to say that Islamic justice has come. Instead of sowing doubts about the accord, we should put the best face on it.
The Americans of course are being stupid and sotto voce are muttering capitulation but for once we should ignore their signals of distress. This is not our war but it is our country and the Americans are not going to save it for us. We have to do this ourselves. Let the presidency and the army, the two key players from our side, resist American bullying and stick to the Swat accord. This is the only thing available on the table and minus it we go back to the pre-accord bloodletting.
Indeed, this accord is defensive philosophy at its best: declaring victory and getting out, a line the Americans may have to follow in Afghanistan when all their other gambits fail. The situation there is already beyond the repair of American arms and no surge — no fresh troop induction like the 17,000 troop increase just decreed by President Obama — is going to fix it.
This should be a time for introspection and the study of history, that of the Vietnam conflict and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan above all.
At the height of their involvement in Vietnam the United States had half a million troops there. They threw more bombs on North and South Vietnam than the total tonnage of bombs thrown in the Second World War. They lost over 3,000 aircraft over the skies of Vietnam. Nothing worked because the population was against them, a people primed for resistance by the great Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese Communist Party.
The Soviet army was a tough army. Their special forces, Spetznatz commandos, were second to none. They had more troops in Afghanistan than those presently fielded by the western allies. They had a more effective grip on the major cities of Afghanistan than anything the Americans can claim. Even when they withdrew in Feb 1989, their protégé, Najibullah, survived for another three years and only fell when Boris Yeltsin’s Russia stopped gasoline supplies (and also because Abdul Rashid Dostum defected to the mujahideen).
Nonetheless, through a deadly combination of Afghan geography, CIA and Saudi money, Pakistani help and Pakhtoon hardihood, the Soviets suffered defeat in Afghanistan. Let it be noted in passing that on his own terrain the Pakhtoon is amongst the toughest guerrilla fighters in the world.
Two factors have changed in this equation. Firstly, CIA and Saudi money has been replaced by poppy money. Pakistan may be facing bankruptcy but the Taliban are in a position to finance their own jihad. Secondly, against the Soviets Pakistan as a state was a sponsor of jihad. Not any more. Pakistan is now tied to America’s apron strings because in a crunch its elite, civil and military, will always be a pawn in America’s hands, the ethos of this elite predisposing it to play this role.
But the two other factors remain constant: Afghan geography and Pakhtoon hardihood. The Obama administration is welcome to try but all the signs suggest that in Afghanistan it is about to replicate the monumental failure in Vietnam. It will get tired — of this we can be certain if Iraq is any guide, and before it Vietnam–but not before inflicting more punishment on Afghanistan. And more damage on Pakistan which is also caught up in this conflict.
Al Qaeda will remain an abiding American concern but the question likely to come to the fore sooner rather that later is whether Al Qaeda is best fought covertly, using the tremendous array of resources at America’s command, or by putting forty or fifty thousand boots on the ground. An empire best fights distant wars through indirect means. Getting bogged down on the ground is a troubling sign, evidence of blundering.
So let us be careful in rushing to judgment over the Swat accord. It may fall apart tomorrow but it is still a model that the Pakistan army may have to follow in other parts of the tribal belt and which the Americans may have to follow when belated wisdom dawns about the futility of further conflict in Afghanistan.
Tailpiece: Who killed Musa Khankhel, Geo’s correspondent in Mingora, Swat, a brave and dedicated journalist by all accounts? His family blames the security forces and he himself when alive spoke of threats to his life from the security forces. But he was killed in an area under the tight control of the Taliban. Clearly, someone was trying to send a message. But what precisely? TV channels reported the scenes of jubilation witnessed in Mingora on Sufi Muhammad’s arrival. In whose interest was it to cut short those expressions of joy? His death underscores the tragedy Pakistan is going through. This is a time to think for ourselves rather than dance to the tune of distant powers.