For more than six weeks, the Pakistan army has been engaged in armed struggle against the Taliban and their local affiliates in the northwest of Pakistan. The decision to use force was prompted by territorial advances made by the Taliban, advances that went beyond what was granted to them in the “peace against Sharia” deals with the Pakistani leadership. The Taliban overstepped their bounds in many ways; this led to greater public support for aggressive action, and gave the civilian leadership of president Zardari the badly needed political cover to order the latest military operation against the militants.
This round of fighting was preceded by a negotiated truce, as the government sought to quell militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas by striking a deal with the Taliban leader, Sufi Mohammad. The deal, which instituted a version of Sharia law in the region in exchange for a commitment that militants would lay down their weapons, was blessed by the comparatively liberal Awami National Party, which governs the Northwest Frontier Province where the Swat Valley is located.
But the Taliban’s assurances were upended by a series of incidents that exposed their real face. First, they never laid down their weapons; on the contrary, they actually expanded their activities by trying to conquer the Buner district, just a 100 miles from the capital, Islamabad. Moreover, their way of administering justice has been cruel and senseless, with frequent public floggings and executions. They have also stripped the local population of whatever they had, regarding it a contribution to the Islamic cause. In one incident, a private news channel broadcast across the country a video clip recorded on a cell phone of the public flogging of a 17-year-old Swat girl. This gave the public a stark sense of what Taliban justice really meant.
On one occasion, Sufi Mohammad was interviewed on GEO TV, where he explained his political views. According to Mohammad, democracy is un-Islamic, as are Pakistan’s constitution and judiciary, and Islam bars women from getting an education or leaving their homes except to perform the Hajj in Mecca.
This was too much even for Pakistan’s religious conservatives. Leaders of the religious parties rushed to denounce Mohammad’s views. The Pakistani media revisited a famous comment by Mohammad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher who devised the idea of an independent Muslim state in Pakistan. “The religion of the mullah,” he said, “is anarchy in the name of Allah.”
This time around, the army appears to be winning, in marked contrast to the half-hearted confrontations with the Taliban forces we have seen since the beginning of the war on terror. For now, the Taliban are on the run, some with shaved beards and some in burqas, to avoid being recognized and thrashed. The reason is simple: increasingly, people across Pakistan support the army’s action. However, the military operation, while necessary to turn back the Taliban, is having a terrible humanitarian cost: more than two million internal refugees. This enormous humanitarian crisis appears to have caught everyone by surprise; it developed extremely rapidly in the face of the military’s attacks on heavily populated areas. In the Swat Valley, in the first week of fighting alone, a million civilians were displaced. But despite the plight of the local population, public support seems to persist.
The Obama administration’s special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, who met some of the displaced people, declared: “When you talk to them, and I need to stress this, they really understand why the military came in. They want the Taliban out. They hate them and they think they have destroyed this piece of heaven, which was the Swat Valley.”
However, Holbrooke warned that that long-term success for Pakistani authorities depends on restoring security and normal life in the Swat Valley and neighbouring areas devastated by the recent fighting. “I want to stress that the refugees must be able to return. Those camps and those temporary facilities cannot harden into a permanent refugee settlement as has happened in so many parts of the world,” said Holbrooke. “So the test is not simply the military phase, but the ability of the government to get those people back into their homes as quickly as possible and provide them security.”
If the campaign against the Taliban does fail, however, the Pakistani establishment would have no one to blame but itself. For many months, the international community and a vocal minority of Pakistani liberals warned the state not to continually grant territorial and policy concessions to the Taliban. The Taliban have never hidden their intention to take over the whole of Pakistan, the ultimate dream being to create some sort of global Caliphate where Sharia law would be imposed on the entire planet. It was therefore mindboggling even to consider the possibility that they would have complied with their agreements. Additionally, the government waited too long before taking appropriate action -- until the Taliban were already entrenched in the Swat and Buner districts in Malakand. The entire refugee crisis can be traced to the decision to wait-and-see adopted by the government. Pakistan’s leadership essentially made its job more difficult than it needed to be, a mistake that was dearly paid for by the population of the country’s Northwest.
Nevertheless, whereas law enforcement needs urgent attention, counter-terrorism is never solely a military affair. Financial pledges from the US and the “Friends of Pakistan” consortium (the European Union, China, and Japan) are important, but when it comes to investing wisely in development projects, Pakistan’s track record is nothing to be proud of. Effective oversight from donors and Pakistan’s private sector will be crucial. Also, it would be wise to impose one condition on aid for Pakistan: the first money should be spent on rebuilding all the bombed-out girls’ schools in Swat. If necessary, the army should guard these schools around the clock.