Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
With Pakistan launching what the country’s Daily Times calls an “all-out war” against the Taliban, more than 500,000 people have fled the fighting in the northwest, bringing to more than a million those displaced since August, according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.After apparently giving the Taliban enough rope to hang themselves, by offering a peace deal in the Swat valley which the government said they then reneged upon, the government for now seems to have won enough popular backing to launch its offensive.But to succeed in defeating the Taliban, the government must also be ready with a strategy to rebuild shattered lives if the mood in the northwest is not to turn sour, Dawn newspaper says. It quotes defence analyst Ikram Sehgal as estimating the military could take up to two months to conclude its campaign, and that dealing with the impact on civilians will require more than 10 times the one billion rupees (12 million dollars) the government has so far announced.In a separate article, it says that refugees are already upset about the behaviour of both the Taliban and the military. ’We are frightened of the Taliban and the army. If they want to fight, they should kill each other, they should not take refuge in our homes,” it quotes an 18-year-old girl as saying.Both Pakistan’s The News International newspaper and the blog Changing up Pakistan warn against the onset of compassion fatigue, both for the sake of the people affected and to make sure refugee camps do not turn into recruiting grounds for the Taliban.”If the militants can provide services and offer more viable options for IDPs than the state, that is a dangerous phenomenon. The government and international agencies must therefore do more to relieve the plight of the ever-increasing number of displaced persons in Pakistan, not just for humanitarian purposes, but because we cannot afford to let the Taliban win any more,” Changing up Pakistan says.In the meantime, more questions are being raised about the U.S. administration’s policy of using unmanned drone aircraft to fire missiles on Pakistan’s tribal areas. The missile attacks, meant to target militant leaders and disrupt al Qaeda’s capabilities, cause civilian casualties, alienate Pakistanis who see them as an invasion of sovereignty and add to a perception that Pakistan is fighting “America’s war” in one place, while being bombed by American planes in another.Foreign Policy Journal quotes U.S. Congressman Ron Paul as criticising the Obama administration for continuing the drone missile attacks first started under President George W. Bush. “We are bombing a sovereign country,” it quotes him as saying. “Where do we get the authority to do that? Did the Pakistani government give us written permission? Did the Congress give us written permission to expand the war and start bombing in Pakistan?” he asked.
It adds that he said there are “many, many thousands of Pashtuns that are right smack in the middle, getting killed by our bombs, and then we wonder why they object to our policies over there. How do you win the hearts and minds of these people if we’re seen as invaders and occupies?”
Dawn newspaper also urges an end to the drone attacks in a passionately worded editorial.
Often it’s the small details that bring alive the tragedy of a nation. I recommend reading this story on IRIN about how newly qualified school-teachers are unable to take up jobs in Pakistan’s Swat valley because the government is not functioning well enough to appoint them to vacant posts.
It quotes a 25-year-old as saying that his impoverished family had worked hard to send him to school and on to teacher-training. “We have been waiting for two years to be appointed. But this is being delayed. We are without jobs. We cannot support our families. The government has failed to help us at all,” he said. It also quotes an education department official in Swat as saying that posts were lying empty in schools as many teachers had fled the Swat valley, where the government concluded a peace deal with Taliban militants earlier this year. “But we can make no new appointments as we have no instructions from the government, plus the militants control everything anyway.”
As Pakistani forces fight militants in an area close to Swat, there are two contrasting images of a state in upheaval.
One is a nuclear-armed country in great peril, in danger of being overrun by militants, and in turn a mortal threat to the rest of the world, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton painted it last week.
Is the Pakistan army getting ready to act against the Taliban militants who have made the deepest advance yet into the country, seizing control of Buner district, 100 km (60 miles) from Islamabad, after taking over Swat region?
The militants began withdrawing on Friday just as quietly as they moved into the district, and it wasn’t clear what had led to the sudden withdrawal.
President Asif Ali Zardari has said that an agreement signed last month to allow Islamic law in the troubled Swat Valley in return for a ceasefire was made with religious clerics, and not the Taliban. The Pakistani state had not negotiated with the Taliban and other extremist elements, and nor will it ever do so, Zardari wrote in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal.
But some people are questioning the distinction that Zardari is drawing between the “traditional local clerics” and the Swat Taliban militants who effectively control what was once an idyllic holiday destination. In the light of the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, the first major strike on international sport since the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972, the debate over the deal has acquired a sharper edge as some see it as having emboldened the militants in the first place.
Ten days have passed since Pakistan cut a deal with Islamists to enforce sharia in the turbulent Swat region in return for a ceasefire, and we still don't know many details about what was agreed. The deal made international headlines. It prompted political and security concerns in NATO and Washington and warnings about possible violations of human rights and religious freedom. (Photo: Supporters of Maulana Sufi Mohammad gather for prayers in Mingora, 21 Feb 2009/Adil Khan)
In the blogosphere, Terry Mattingly over at GetReligion has asked in two posts (here and here) why reporters there aren't supplying more details about exactly how sharia will be implemented or what the doctrinal differences between Muslims in the region are. Like other news organisations, Reuters has been reporting extensively on the political side of this so-called peace deal but not had much on the religion details. As Reuters religion editor and a former chief correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I'm very interested in this. I blogged about the deal when it was struck and wanted to revisit the issue now to see what more we know about it.
Salman Ahmad, the founder of the Pakistani band Junoon, has written a piece for the Washington Post’s “On Faith” site calling for more to be done to defend Pakistani arts, music and culture against attacks by what he sees as an alien form of Islam being grafted onto Pakistan by the Taliban.
“In its 60-plus turbulent years as an independent country, Pakistan has been held together by its music, poetry, films, literature and sports. Pakistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, but culture — not religion — is the glue that binds people…” he writes. He calls the killing off of arts and culture by Taliban militants in northwest Pakistan — notably in the Swat valley where the government has just concluded a peace deal — as an ominous sign. ”It is the first step in the potential Talibanization of more of the country.”
The debate over the Pakistan government’s decision to seek peace with Taliban militants in the Swat valley by promising to introduce sharia law is proving to be like everything else in the Pakistani kaleidoscope – turn it a little bit and you see something else.
Pakistani analyst Ayesha Siddiqa said the peace deal could encourage groups in other parts of the country to copy the example of the Taliban in forcing through changes. ”The bottom line is that while conflict might be arrested for the short term in one part of the country, it might escalate in other parts where groups of people acting like the Taliban could impose their will on the rest of the population in the name of changing the judicial, economic or political system,” she says. “Ultimately, this could come to redefine Pakistan’s identity completely.”
A reader has pointed to an agreement that Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami, the main Islamist political group, signed with the Chinese communist party during its trip to Beijing a few days ago.
The truce comes after nearly two years of fighting in which the Taliban have extended their control of the alpine region barely 130 km (80 km) northwest of Islamabad, destroyed the police force, established a shadow government and implemented an austere form of Islamic law.