Paradise Lost: Swat Battle Tests Pakistan’s Resolve

November 22nd, 2007 - by admin

Chris Morris / BBC News – 2007-11-22 23:11:48

ISLAMABAD (November 21, 2007) — There are the tens of millions of Pakistanis for whom emergency rule means almost nothing. Life goes on, shops open and close, and the kids go to school.

And there is a deep sense of disillusion with the entire ruling class, whether in or out of uniform.

Generals and prime ministers may come and go, they feel, so too democracy and military rule. But nothing much will change. And on the surface, that feels like a reasonable assumption — born of bitter experience.

But one thing is different this time, a fact which Pakistan’s moderate majority acknowledges with some discomfort. The threat from Islamist militancy, from people taking up arms against the state, is greater than ever before.

It can be difficult to judge how serious the situation is, and it is important to guard against over-dramatisation. But it is serious.

Vulnerable Areas
In Waziristan and Pakistan’s other rugged tribal areas close to the Afghan border, peace deals with militants have collapsed. There is no civil administration. The writ of the state no longer runs there — it never really did. And in some places, militant groups are running riot.

Of even greater concern is the Swat valley in the North-West Frontier Province. A place of high mountains, green meadows and dark blue lakes, it has Pakistan’s only ski centre, and likes to describe itself as paradise on earth.

But paradise has, for the moment, been lost. The Swat valley echoes to the sound of artillery fire and helicopter gunships. A series of towns and villages has fallen into insurgent hands, and the army is scrambling to win them back.

Fighting has intensified in Swat after followers of a radical cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, declared holy war against the government in July. Several hundred people have been killed.

It is significant because this is the first major conflict against Islamist militants in what is known as a settled area, outside Pakistan’s tribal belt.

Security officials have been beheaded, shops selling western music and Indian films have been set on fire, and schools for girls shut down.

As Uzbek and Waziri militants mix with disgruntled locals, the insurgency could spread to other vulnerable areas. If militants were to move much further east from Swat, they would also threaten the Karakoram Highway, the main trade route to China.

For now, Taleban-style Islamic law has been declared in places where everyone from the elite to ordinary families used to go on holiday. And that has got them spooked.

Dangerous Ground
It is a long winding road to Swat, but the valley is not much more than 100 miles from Islamabad.

Military officials argue that the insurgents are little more than “gangs” which have taken advantage of a security vacuum to terrorise the local population.

But they acknowledge the presence of foreign fighters, and say more than 15,000 troops are poised to launch a major offensive.

Critics say the military should have acted sooner. And they point out that Fazlullah continues to run an illegal FM radio station in Swat while national TV channels have been shut down under the state of emergency.

So there is a war on, and if you talk to western and Pakistani security analysts here many of them will tell you that in the last few months Pakistan has been losing.

The winners have been forces linked to al-Qaeda and the Taleban. If nothing is done to reverse that trend, they will have more room to manoeuvre, more space in which to operate, and in the long term greater freedom to run training camps and plan attacks around the world.

It is a grim prognosis, but one on which everyone seems to agree.

General Musharraf cites the threat from militancy as one of the main reasons he imposed emergency rule.

“Is democracy more important than the country?” he asked rhetorically a few days ago. “If the country is becoming a failed state, which is more important?”

“Obviously,” he concluded, answering his own question, “save the government, save the nation.”

You can also hear Benazir Bhutto warning that “the Taleban are getting nearer and nearer”.

She vows to use “empowerment, employment and education” to stop parts of Pakistan “becoming the focal point of national and international terrorist plots which threaten us all”.

But that is where she and General Musharraf part company. Elections under emergency rule — his current — will not produce a credible democratic mandate. And that is making a lot of people very worried. Pakistan’s politicians, of course, have not exactly covered themselves in glory in the past.

But one retired general, Talat Masood, is adamant that real democracy has to be restored. “The army shouldn’t forget,” he said, “that we have to have the support of the people to take strong action against extremism.”

“Otherwise they’ll think this is a war we’re fighting for the Americans rather than for the people of Pakistan. It would be a disaster. We wouldn’t win.”

So there is a clear political challenge, but also a military one. The Pakistani army is largely untested in counter-insurgency. For a long time its primary focus was to prevent Indian tanks rolling across the plains of Punjab.

The problem it faces in the north-western mountains is altogether different.

Over the last few weeks, the extraordinary events in Swat have been overshadowed by the political dramas in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. But the way Pakistan chooses to deal with the Swat insurgency will be a real test of its resolve.


Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.