The decision by the government to send the military to chase out the Islamic militants from Malakand may have ushered in a process that can bring the country back to the path of religious moderation and political modernization. The move represents a major change for the army.
According to one analysis, ‘the coming weeks are a reckoning for Pakistan’s army. The force — long primed for another war against the regional rival India — is now fighting an internal conflict’.
Maj-Gen Athar Abbas, head of the army’s public affairs division, was interviewed by the Financial Times in which he indicated the change in focus in the military’s thinking. If this persists — and there is good reason to believe that it would — it would have enormous consequences for the country’s relations with India and consequently, for the future of South Asia.
‘An existential threat in terms of our internal security has grown over time. It needs our attention and an urgent response,’ he told the correspondents of the British newspaper. The thinking is changing but the army is aware of the dangers that are involved. ‘But we have to be very careful as we are operating against our own people in their own area. We have to separate the militants from the tribes. We can afford to fight the militants; we cannot afford to fight the tribes,’ he continued.
The operation is proceeding at the time of this writing and it is taking a heavy human toll. The UN official responsible for looking after ‘internally displaced persons’ has suggested that the displacement of people by the military’s action in the valley of Swat and in the districts surrounding it has reached proportions last seen in the Rwanda conflict in 1994. Relief agencies were warning that the number of refugees is not likely to stabilise while fighting continues. Soon after the exodus of refugees began from Swat, the UN estimated that the country required half a billion dollars to provide relief to the displaced people. A donors’ conference pledged about half that amount. Last month, the US announced an emergency assistance package for $110m.
‘President Obama is determined to match our words with our actions because Pakistan’s government is leading the fight against extremists that threaten their country and our collective security,’ said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a statement issued to accompany the announcement for the aid package.
This assistance from the United States along with that to be provided by other donors will certainly help Pakistan deal with this extraordinary situation. That said three things need to be underscored in this context. One, Pakistan has experienced a large displacement of people in the past. It received eight million refugees from India soon after the partition of British India and the birth of Pakistan. It hosted three to four million refugees that left Afghanistan and sought refuge in the areas on the Pakistani side of the border.
An earthquake in October 2005 in Pakistan’s north produced another flow of 2 to 2.5 million refugees. All these were near catastrophic situations, but all of them the government was able to deal with and from all of them flowed political, social and economic consequences that were not anticipated when these displacements occurred. There is no doubt that the Swat displacement will also have similar consequences. What is important is that there is a consensus in the country that this is a price worth paying for dealing with an existential threat to Pakistan posed by the rise of Islamic extremism.
The second area of concern is the nature of America’s deeper involvement in what the current set of American policymakers have begun to call the Af-Pak area. From the six-year long engagement in Iraq, the Americans are developing a new counter-insurgency approach for this part of the world. That involves considerable focus on winning the hearts and minds of the people who are economically and socially very backward. They need focus on human and physical development — work which will involve not only the provision of funds but also technical know-how and institution-building. The Obama administration seems keen to move in that direction but by using unmanned aircrafts — the drones — to hunt and eliminate suspected terrorists, it is producing collateral damage. David Kilcullen, who has written on the subject of counter-insurgency after having experiencing it firsthand in Southeast Asia while working for the Australian military, sees serious problems with the use of the drones as a weapon of choice. On a recent visit to Pakistan, he was told that 17 militants had been killed by the drone attacks while 700 civilians also died. He called a two per cent hit ratio ‘not moral’.
Also the use of air muscle reminds the people of this area of the atrocities committed during colonial times. According to the historian Priya Satia, ‘Only a permanent end to the strategy will win the Pakistani hearts and minds back to their government and to its US ally. They, like Afghans and Iraqis, are less struck by the strategy’s futuristic qualities than by its uncanny echo to the past: aerial counter-insurgency was invented in precisely these two regions — Iraq and the Pakistan-Afghan borderland in the 1920s by the British. In the memory of the colonial and political dynamics of aerial strategy in the region Pakistanis see the drones as ‘post-colonial’.’
The third concern is even trickier than the first one. It is my belief that the rise of Islamic extremism and militancy is one of those areas that call for a regional solution. But calling the region ‘Af-Pak’ does not do full justice to the regional aspect of the problem. The Obama administration’s instincts were correct when the terms of reference it issued for the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as a special representative to the region implicitly included India.
This led to protests from New Delhi and expressions of considerable satisfaction by Indian officialdom and think-tank community when that reference was removed. But the Indian involvement in dealing with the matter is critical not only because that country has suffered from several acts of terrorism, most recently in Mumbai in November 2008, that can be traced to some terrorist groups operating on Pakistani soil. India also needs to ensure that the countries on its periphery are economically, politically and socially stable. Only then would the rise of extremism in the area be checked.
With the beginning of the Swat operation, Islamabad may have initiated change in its worldview. However, for the effort to succeed there must be similar changes in the thinking in other capitals, particularly Washington and New Delhi.
By Shahid Javed Burki