Pakistan’s Unfolding Human Tragedy
A major human tragedy is unfolding in Pakistan with hundreds of men, women and children, displaced from their homes as the Army finally launched operations targeting the Swat Taliban in their numerous lairs in the district. Television pictures of women carrying large trunks containing their life's belongings and children lined up with aluminum pots for food denoted the human side of the battle against the Taliban in which there are likely to be no winners.
Having denied existence of well armed and fully equipped terrorists who are said to number 4000 in Swat alone, the Pakistan government and the Army has imposed this tragedy upon the people, hardy peasants of Pakhtoonwa and Waziristan. Whole villages are reported to have been evacuated and townships of Kabal, Khwazakhela, Mingora, Charbagh, Matta, Amankot, Kanju, Shah Dherai, Mangoltan, Peuchar abandoned as terrorist strong points are being targeted from ground and air.
The result is a large number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) estimated to be almost 1 million who will have to be catered for with half a million displaced in the past few days alone. While presence of the UNHCR in the country may help along with a large number of NGOs and even the Pakistan government has some sort of an expertise in handling thousands of Afghan refugees for over two decades now. But with 1.7 million estimated Afghan refugees already in the country, this is an added burden on Pakistani aid and refugee care agencies in the days ahead.
It is evident however that the human tragedy is far beyond control of the Pakistani government and the international community needs to step in as the life of hundreds of refugees is at stake for a long period of time. Militancies are easy to start but very difficult to end. Millions of displaced in Pakistan may have to live in make shift tents and depend on doles by aid agencies for many years given the poor capacity of the Pakistani military to bring peace to their villages.
What is even more tragic is that this is just the beginning of the operation against the Taliban in one district of Pakhtoonwa. As the Taliban have made deep inroads and established strongholds in various parts of the Western frontier and tribal regions, the only way to get them out would be to launch kinetic military operations rather than hand to hand fighting at which the Pakistani army is very weak The entire province and Waziristan would have to be rid of the Taliban if the government and the army are serious about the same. And that is 11 percent of Pakistani territory, so many hundreds of displaced can be expected in the days and months ahead.
The denial of surrender of its Western provinces to the Taliban has created this crisis for Pakistan that is likely to grow each day as the forces make a foray from one area to another given the Government's determination to root out extremism as proclaimed by the Prime Minister and supported by the Army Chief.
While the high profile tripartite summit with President Obama, Zardari and Afghanistan's President Karzai portrayed a common resolve observers familiar with Pakistan's duplicity including many US leaders remained skeptical about what Islamabad may be actually intending to do in the future. Like the proverbial rentier state living on the adrenalin of aid and assistance Islamabad may just call off the operations with half baked excuses bolstering the Taliban and leaving the refugees at the mercy of the UNHCR.
President Obama however appears to be more forthright and will hold the Pakistani establishment to accountability. However the Pakistani army and the government are perhaps far too experienced to be coerced into a posture of liability and will continue to hold its own interests primary. At the same time it is also deft at staving off the challenge of accountability. Thus it is likely to be a difficult time for US and Pakistan relations in the days ahead.
More over the magnitude of the threat of the Taliban is now evident with Swat province under full control of the TNSM affiliated to the Taliban and many prominent leaders identified by the army. The extension to Buner was also quite pervasive and not something which could have been ignored or denied as the Pakistani establishment was doing for a long time.
A key issue is that of political complicity and lack of intelligence, thus despite knowing penetration of the Taliban in Swat all parties in NWFP and in Islamabad seemed to support implementation of the Sharia and the public was also kept generally in the dark. This does not bode well for penetration of these organizations by the government and the security and intelligence forces.
Use of air power and the stream of refugees is also an indication of the level of penetration attained by the Taliban, thus the Army is truly unable to carry out counter insurgency operations and had to resort to conventional operations with use of air power.
While the operations against the Taliban are gathering momentum reports of a large number of terrorists killed have to be sustained by a holding operation which has to be implemented by the Army rather than striking and then withdrawing from the area. Determination of the Pakistan Army to continue till elimination of militancy in the region which may take a decade or more will be tested.
Meanwhile the World would do well to prepare to support over a million or more displaced in Pakistan during the same period.
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Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle
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