I’m currently working with an international organization in Mardan, Swabi, Swat, Buner and D.I. Khan– all conflict affected areas of Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa (KP). I’ve literally been living in these areas since January this year and have tons of stories to share but time constraints have not allowed me to write about my experiences as yet.
I do not favor religious parties and groups such as Taliban. I have always not only condemned but also never even become sympathetic to any of their socio-economic or religious justifications for violence. Similarly, I do not agree with the wholesale bombardment of innocent towns and villages of KP, our military does not have a great track record of its operations inside and outside the boundaries of Pakistan.
Nevertheless, the point I would like to make is that people of Swat and Buner, across the board, including schools teachers, doctors, small business owners, landless peasants, manual laborers, government employees and even the religiously inclined do not believe there was any alternative to pushing out the Taliban other than a military operation. Urban and rural poor that I have met in health facilities of Qambar and Charbagh, two core headquarters of the Taliban in Swat, unanimously stated that we expected the Taliban to be like our brothers, to assist us in rooting out corruption and implementing shariah law.
They found the reality quite opposite, with the Taliban acting like pillaging foreign invaders and caring little for the problems of the downtrodden. Many people were already deciding to leave their homes when the military operation began and the huge displacement took place. It is unwise and ignorant to claim that there was wholesale condemnation or approval for the military operation. We can debate this sitting far away from those affected by the conflict, but from the point of view of those who were displaced, have lost livelihood and loved ones, the reality is somewhere in between.
Many people have advocated that the real solutions to the conflict reside in radical land reform, end of state patronage to the corrupt pathan elite, public health system, legal reforms, nationalizing madrassas, literacy campaign etc. Their point is that no amount of military operations will truly defeat the taliban and bring about a viable change in the conflict affected areas.
I have two things to say about this:
- When I shared such ideas to combat the taliban, I was about to be beaten up by an elderly fellow in Swabi, who had been displaced with his family from Kanju, Swat. He said, “the taliban were brutal, blood thirsty men coming to destroy our homes, pointing guns at anyone they suspected as opponents and you are suggesting political solutions? The police was on the run, there was no one to defend ordinary citizens, how is it possible to defeat such an enemy other than shooting back at them?” I had no rebuttal to his comments…
- My local colleagues in conflict affected areas (including I) all agree with the social and economic reforms necessary for bringing real change but they insisted on the fact that we can talk about such reforms now, when there is a civilian government, when we have room to advocate change through political mobilization and pressuring government departments to work, especially the security services which, unfortunately, no one still trusts. They told me how it was impossible for any intelligent, educated person to hold dialogue with local taliban commanders since most were illiterate, opportunist poor folk, some even belonging to the lumpen proletariat, such as Sher Mohammad alias qasai (butcher). Qasai owned a small meat shop in Charbagh, Swat and joined the taliban when they entered Swat. He became the taliban commander of the area and was found riding a prado with armed guards and dispensing justice through ridiculous religious edicts, enjoying executions while having tea after juma prayers.
We must keep in mind that militaries have historically meted out collective punishment to people in order to carry out their own objectives. We should not believe their narratives and never blindly support any military action, especially within our own territories. However, we should not categorically state that every military action is completely unjustified and based solely on fulfilling some hidden agenda. Taliban commanders in Buner demanded bhatta (extortion money) from residents, whether rich or poor, and sent messages to whoever refused to either leave town or face strict punishment (execution). Similarly in Buner, I heard how taliban collaborators were tortured and executed by the army, who knows whether they were criminals or simple bystanders in the conflict.
I believe it is ridiculous to argue over the flogging girl video! It does not matter whether its real or not and why it was released at the time to swerve public opinion and launch the military campaign. It does not matter since armed action against the taliban did not require a flogging video. Samar Minhalla has answered this brilliantly
Daily Times – 4th April 2010:“…the taliban used violence against women and men, cutting throats, hanging body-parts in public places and executing people without any judicial process. They seem to have conveniently forgotten all those gruesome beheading videos in CDs that were sold openly as ‘Swat-1’ and ‘Swat-2’. All this was not only filmed by the militants but also proudly owned and disseminated by them. None were ‘fake’, none were funded by any anonymous NGO based in Islamabad.”
I also do not believe there’s any point of arguing whether the military operation was justified or not, since it has already taken place and one hopes there will be no excuse for such widespread use of our armed forces and the blood of army jawans to get rid of murderous hordes like the taliban. There should be no appeasement of any such group, anywhere in the country, whether its crazed mullahs in a masjid of Islamabad or tribal militias in Khyber Agency, anyone who dares to violently challenge the state and kill its civilians must be stopped and never allowed to gain time and space for empowering themselves further.
I personally hold religious parties and other non-bearded mullahs like Imran Khan for the infiltration and proliferation of taliban militants in Pakistan, since whosoever condemned them back in 2004, 05 and 06 were considered cronies of America and enemies of Islam. If the splintered taliban groups back then had been crushed, we would’ve have to face the large umbrella group of Tehreek-e-Taliban today. Obviously, we must not forget the lack of seriousness shown by the military in eliminating such threats back then. It is well known that Musharraf was bartering American support by conducting half-hearted military operations in tribal areas while maintaining contacts with such groups for future use in securing Pakistan’s strategic depth in Afghanistan.
In the opinion of residents of Swat and Buner, the most urgent need now is to prevent the resurgence of taliban and to keep the peace for not allowing the army to move back in. For everyone’s information, the army had completely rolled back from main areas of Swat and handed over security to the police in January, 2010. I was in Saidu Sharif the day of the bomb blast in Nishat Chowk (Feb.22), killing about 20 people and bringing army check posts and random road blocks back into the cities of lower Swat.
Let us analyze the performance of civilian governance and rehabilitation of life for all those affected by the conflict. We all recognize that violence is not the solution to the issues plaguing Pakistanis today and this is the best time, in this relative calm, that we must exert our influence in the corridors of power to provide education, health, justice and other basic necessities to those who are vulnerable enough to join the ranks of criminals such as the taliban.