Pakistan: All Chaos on the Western Front

Editorial, The Guardian, Friday 29 May 2009

Pakistan, a country synonymous with political upheaval, military coups and social unrest, is facing one of its most critical tests. Having fought and ousted the Taliban from cities in the settled areas of the North-West Frontier Province, like Buner and Swat, the army is about to launch the most difficult part of its offensive. This will be in the tribal areas and in mountainous terrain naturally suited to the hit-and-run tactics of the militants. Faced with a determination that the army has not shown against them in past campaigns, the Taliban have not proved to be the formidable fighting force they were once feared to be – on the plains at least. They have been pushed back with relative ease.

This is not to underestimate the havoc they can unleash in reprisal bombings in the Punjab, the army’s heartland. After the bombing outside Pakistan’s main spy agency, the ISI, in Lahore on Wednesday, there were more bombs and a shoot-out in Peshawar yesterday. And if the contents of a telephone tap released by the military are accurate, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Multan could all face a bombing campaign aimed at sapping the will of soldiers and their families. “Strikes should be carried out on their homes so their kids get killed and then they’ll realise,” the Taliban spokesman in Swat, Muslim Khan, was quoted as saying in the intercept.

It is easy to make sweeping judgments from a safe distance about the effect that all this has on the public mood in Pakistan. The west sees what it wants to see – a country united, not before time, over the existential threat that the militants now pose. But this is not the whole picture. In the North-West Frontier Province, which has borne the brunt of the chaos, feelings against the provincial government, the army and by inference the Pakistani state are running high. The army offensive has sparked an exodus of more than 2 million people. Only a fraction of these refugees have ended up in camps, where food is being distributed. The vast majority have been absorbed into the host community in neighbouring districts in Buner, Swabi and Mardan. World Vision, one of the aid agencies operating in Buner, quoted the example of a man who has taken 37 people into his home. He said the host community, not rich to start with, was simply being exhausted.

As the summer heat on the plains starts in earnest, these people are angry about the burden they are carrying and the lack of support they are getting from the provincial government in Peshawar. They fear the Taliban, with their summary executions of state officials, public whippings, closures of girls’ schools and large-scale intimidation of the population. But the people of Swat, Buner and Mardan did not create or nurture the Taliban. The Pakistani army and the ISI did, and successive presidents in Islamabad used them for covert operations against the Soviets in Afghanistan, or in Kashmir. Above all, the refugees of the North-West Frontier Province do not trust their army to protect them. This is the fourth such offensive the army has conducted against the Taliban in Swat. Each time in the past the Taliban have returned stronger. Hence the importance of Human Rights Watch’s recent statement, which warned that Pakistan has to end the cycle of bad fighting followed by bad peacemaking.

The refugees from Swat and Buner are Pakistani citizens and are entitled to expect protection and relief from the state. Neither is happening. Neither journalists nor human rights monitors are being allowed into what has become a closed military area, so it is impossible to confirm reports of civilian deaths and destruction from the military’s aerial bombardments. If Pakistan is too weak or chaotic to provide relief to its own citizens, this is where the bulk of international relief should now go. The threat to the state does not come from the Taliban alone. It comes from Islamabad’s failings in providing relief to its long-suffering citizens.

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