Some substantial damage has been done to the Taliban and their cohorts by the continuing military operation in Swat. The ISPR spokesman has claimed, corroborating an earlier statement by the interior advisor, that 751 Taliban (‘miscreants’) have been killed up to May 11, while 71 members of the regular and paramilitary forces have been martyred.
Given the intensity of the operation, these are relatively small numbers and bear testimony to the fact that the armed forces are choosing their targets carefully and are trying to avoid civilian casualties, a task rendered difficult by the Taliban’s use of innocent civilians as human shields.
There has been a massive exodus of civilians from the conflict zones. Nearly a million people have made their way out of Swat and Buner into Mardan, Swabi other settled areas of Pukhtunkhwa, and considerable numbers have come down to Karachi, the city with the largest Pashtun population in Pakistan. This, in addition to the half-million refugees from the tribal areas displaced by the army offensive in Bajaur, has created a major problem, which is likely to be further exacerbated when the military expands its operations to other insurgency-hit areas.
We have, however, the experience of coping with even larger displacements. At its peak, the Afghan jihad brought to Pakistan some 5.2 million refugees. Even today we are providing shelter to some 2 million officially registered refugees, while at least another million are unregistered or have somehow acquired Pakistani documentation.
The plight of our Afghan brothers as refugees and as IDPs inside Afghanistan is relevant to the concerns we have now on a number of counts, some positive and some negative. First, we were able to cope with the Afghan refugees and create infrastructure for the most part in the same areas in which the Swat refugees will have to be accommodated. We will now, as then, rely on the generosity and hospitality of the kith and kin of the refugees.
Today, according to official estimates, only 20 percent of the Swat refugees are in camps while the rest have found shelter with relatives and friends. We will need to ensure, however, that the burden on the hosts is minimised by providing essential items and facilities to the refugees, which they would have been entitled to had they moved to the camps.
Second, in trying to cope with the difficult task of administering the camps and in aid of the jihad, we permitted jihadi parties, particularly the more fundamentalist among them, to exercise considerable amount of control in the camps and to propagate their distorted version of Islam. It was in these camps and in the schools run by these parties that the seeds of extremism were planted. Today, there is talk of screening new arrivals in tents to ensure that no Taliban find sanctuary, but it is even more important to ensure that volunteers at camps do not share the Taliban’s worldview.
It was disquieting, in this context, to read a report in the Guardian by Declan Walsh that one of the first refugee camps to be set up at Sher Gur, a few hundred meters from the Malakand Division boundary, is being run by the Falah-e Insaniat Foundation, the renamed relief wing of the Jama’at-ud Dawa. According to this story, the FIF camp is conspicuously well funded and organised, “particularly in comparison with the chaotic efforts of the government”.
While FIF spokespersons said they had no political agenda, Walsh noted that in nearby Mardan, bearded activists manned a fundraising tent festooned with FIF signs and the group’s distinctive black and white flags with banners conveying the political message: “Stop the killing of Muslims”.
It should be clear that winning the hearts and minds of the refugees will not be possible if such activities are permitted by organisations that have a very different agenda. Screening refugees will be a difficult if not impossible task but preventing such organisations from having any role in the relief effort and maintaining complete control of the camps is well within our competence.
It is hoped that the Pukhtunkhwa government will take control of Jama’at-ud Dawa assets, whatever the alias under which it functions, as has been done in Punjab. Organisations like these can no longer be considered “good and benevolent”. President Musharraf may have had words of praise for the role LeT and Dawa activists played in the 2005 earthquake relief effort, but back then we mistakenly considered them ‘our boys’ playing ‘our game’. Now we know that they are beyond our control and no objective they could help achieve is worth the price they would extract — the transformation of Pakistan into the worst sort of Talibanised state.
Third, thirty years after the commencement of the Afghan jihad, we still have a large number of Afghan refugees because conditions in Afghanistan remain disturbed and there has been no effort to rehabilitate the war-torn regions.
We have to ensure that this does not happen with our IDPs. The operation has to be such as “will clear and hold” the area and restore the civil governance that will enable the people to return to their homes. In the meanwhile resources must be found to help the people rebuild their lives while the army moves on to clear the next area.
Fortunately for Pakistan, we will not have the problem of the Afghan IDPs of trying to recover illegally grabbed properties or land rights. Fortunately again, the international community will be prepared to help in what will be a massive effort, far dwarfing what was needed after the 2005 earthquake.
A carefully timed report has just been released by the BBC. It maintains on the basis of what is said to be extensive research and interviews with the people of the region that Pakistan controls only 38 percent of its northwest, with 24 percent under the control of the Taliban. In the remaining 38 percent, the Taliban have a permanent presence. It makes a further, even more alarming assertion, that in “47 [percent] of Punjab Province there was a high likelihood of an increase in Taliban militancy in the near future.”
Unduly alarmist this may seem, but it would be wise for us, the overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan who want to see the country become the moderate and tolerant Islamic state that the Quaid had envisioned, to demand that the current campaign against the Taliban be pursued relentlessly.
It will take time, and it will be testing not only for our Pashtun brothers who are bearing the brunt of the present conflict, but for all of us. The armed forces are now committed, one hopes, to the elimination of the military threat. It is civil society that has to erode and then eliminate the ideological threat that has been allowed to grow over the last thirty years.
The writer is a former foreign secretary