Rahimullah Yusufzai on developments in Swat and the delusions of the armchair militarists.
Unlike the earlier two phases of the military operations in Swat in 2007 and 2008, the latest one initiated in late January is being praised by the ANP-PPP government in the NWFP and sections of the population opposed to the militants. The more discerning elements of the civil society, who tend to criticise almost anything that doesn’t conform to their political and intellectual orientation, are also backing the intensified military action. The main reason for the support to the armed forces this time is due to the belief that the latest military operation is intense, focused and targeted.
This reminds one of a statement made by Gen Pervez Musharraf on the eve of the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. In a bid to win public support for his unpopular decision to ally Pakistan with the US at the time, he had argued that the American military action in the neighbouring, Taliban-ruled country would be quick, focused and targeted. Obviously, the General was trying to reassure Pakistanis that this was going to be over soon as he calculated the Taliban regime would collapse and the US troops would go home after installing a pro-West government in Kabul. Though President George W Bush contradicted his Pakistani counterpart, Gen Musharraf didn’t correct his flawed assessment. Supremely confident of his military knowledge and intellectual prowess, he even claimed at the time that the Taliban could not fight a guerrilla war and, therefore, would soon become irrelevant.
He was wrong, as the US military action, subsequently backed by troops from around 40 NATO and non-NATO countries was neither quick nor focused and targeted. A military operation spread over almost seven-and-a-half years cannot be called quick, the focus has been lost and the targets, whether it is killing or capturing Osama bin Laden or reaching political and development goals, haven’t been met. The US-led foreign forces are struggling to contain the Taliban-led resistance and 30,000 more soldiers are being sent to Afghanistan to try and snatch the initiative from the armed opposition.
The real world out there is a lot different from the one discussed at conferences, in newspaper columns and on TV talk shows, and things could quickly go wrong on the battlefield, more so if the enemy is underestimated. The tactics and strategies adopted by the militants in Pakistan and elsewhere have become sophisticated and their motivation to fight and die is unusually high. The element of exacting revenge is often foremost on their mind due to their conviction that they have been wronged, or in cases when they have lost family members or their homes have been destroyed in military attacks. Some have resorted to brutal acts such as beheadings, killing for petty reasons, inhuman treatment of opponents and destruction of government and private property with a view to establishing their control in the area and creating fear. It is clear a lot more is expected from a professional and well-equipped army but soldiers cannot put up a better fight if they are unsure about the cause for which they are fighting and confused by the different viewpoints being expressed by Pakistani politicians, clerics, writers and others in that endless debate whether it is America’s or Pakistan’s war. Desertions by some troops and willingness to surrender without a fight are manifestations of the demoralisation that has set in among the ranks of soldiers required to fight against their own people.
The Pakistani armed forces haven’t fared much differently from the Western armies. In fact, some of their tactics are identical, including the greater use of airpower and long-range missiles and artillery guns. This is obviously done due to shortage of forces on the ground and to avoid casualties to the troops. Another reason is their unchallenged supremacy of the skies because the Taliban militants don’t possess anti-aircraft guns and missiles. Both the US and Pakistani armies initially made use of the airborne Rapid Reaction Force by flying army commandoes in helicopters to conduct search operations and nab suspected militants, but the practice has almost been discarded. That perhaps was a better way of apprehending wanted militants without causing civilian casualties, but it seems the US wasn’t satisfied with its success rate because it was difficult to keep such operations secret.
The military operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) started in late 2003 and early 2004 and none of the tribal agencies has been fully pacified and stabilised. South Waziristan and North Waziristan are relatively calm and peaceful now, primarily as a result of the peace agreements that the government and the military made with the militants, mostly on the latter’s terms. Rather than extending the government’s writ, military operations have in some cases radicalised the population, disturbed the dynamics of the tribal society and diluted the power and effectiveness of the civil administration. It is true that peace deals too haven’t brought stability, but the same is true of military operations. The failure of one strategy or the other doesn’t mean that it should be given up altogether. Thus, the option of talking peace again or launching military action should remain an option.
Compared with the NATO forces that are operating in an alien Islamic country and far away from home, the Pakistani military has been taking greater care in using jet fighters and helicopter gunships in the tribal areas and Swat as it is fighting mostly its own people. A senior military officer once said his pilots pray before flying out on missions in Waziristan to seek Allah’s help to avoid harming innocent civilians. Still “collateral damage” cannot be avoided, and this limits the intensity and frequency of airstrikes and generates controversy.
Military operations in such situations could quickly become unpopular. The ongoing military action in Swat risks losing steam and becoming controversial due to the high number of civilian casualties and the huge displacement of people that has already been caused. In fact, this is already happening. Members of the ruling political parties and representatives of the civil society have started accusing the military of targeting civilians instead of the militants and for uprooting villagers from their homes. As usual, the government failed to make timely and proper arrangements for internally displaced people fleeing the military action in Swat. Most of them are fending for themselves and complaining. This had happened in the case of Bajaur and Mohmand tribal agencies and earlier when the military carried out operations in South Waziristan and North Waziristan. Most Swatis were angry with the militants for bringing suffering on them and now they are unhappy with the military for uprooting them from their homes and with the provincial and federal governments for failing to look after their needs. The battle for hearts and minds, so essential in this kind of fight against militancy, is being lost even before any real effort was initiated to win the sympathies of the ordinary Swatis.
The armed forces are performing a thankless job. Neither the US nor the ruling and opposition Pakistani politicians are happy with their performance in the battlefield. The common people are in a state of confusion, unable to believe that a professional army cannot defeat the militants, because they have been made to believe all these years that their soldiers are second to none in terms of their training and courage. The politicians want the military to deliver without doing their part of the job by undertaking political work in the places under the militants’ hold. The civil administration and police are paralysed. It seems everybody is scared and seeking to place responsibility on someone else to tackle the situation.
One shudders to think how the destroyed villages and infrastructure will be rebuilt. The need to cater to the needs of the displaced people and the challenges of their resettlement and rehabilitation are daunting. The country has suffered the biggest displacement of people in its history but the response to this challenge has been inadequate and disorderly. It is obvious that a Bajaur-like solution to the Swat crisis through the use of force alone would displace thousands of people and destroy the existing infrastructure and villages without guaranteeing durable peace and stability.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahimyusufzai @yahoo.com