As a rule, I only go to places I have never visited before but on this occasion the invitation to Swat was too interesting to pass up because the army had organised a seminar on deradicalisation. Their concern for the psychological well-being of their enemy seemed a rare and intriguing departure from traditional army demeanour and hence I thought it would be well worth a look. After all, awakening sleeping minds and taming obstinate and presumptuous ignorance is always a worthy endeavour. On the whole, I am glad I went because one visit proved to be worth a hundred reports.
In preparation for the visit by the army chief and the prime minister, Swat was teeming with soldiers. Schools had been closed, exams postponed and some shops preferred to stay shut. So pervasive was the military presence that it seemed we were visiting a cantonment.
About the first thing one discovers after talking to the locals and junior members of our forces alike is that the Swat operation was a self-inflicted disaster. It need never have occurred had the Swatis, especially the poor, been treated with a bit of respect and sympathy. If they had been able to obtain prompt and cheap justice; the educational system had functioned with a modicum of proficiency; the poverty alleviation schemes had been undertaken honestly; and the local and provincial administration displayed a mite of efficiency and acted promptly when confronted by Taliban infiltration, many of those killed would have been alive today.
What occurred in Swat deserves to be probed as it raises many questions. Why, for example, were the Taliban allowed to enter these areas unarmed and unimpeded and then ferret in vast quantities of arms under the noses of the local administration? Why were they allowed to occupy dominating heights and passes; to set up an informal military system including training and logistical support centres and to move around with impunity? Why were they indulged to such an extent and their open defiance of the law condoned? Why was the provincial government permitted to enter into agreements with the enemy? Why was the pro-Taliban deputy commissioner of Swat, who grovelled before the Taliban and fawned on their leaders, promoted to the rank of commissioner? How could the Taliban build field hospitals and establish a military headquarters undetected and, if not undetected, then unimpeded in preparation for their war against the state? Why was their stopping and searching of army vehicles tolerated; indeed, where were the law enforcers when homes were looted, women raped and forcibly married off, journalists murdered and innocents slaughtered?
And finally, how could one of the world’s largest standing armies — funded annually by a lion’s share of the federal budget — of a poor economy ever think of succumbing to the dictates of a horde of barbarians who were openly flouting the country’s sovereignty by operating within its territory to eventually strike at Islamabad?
Until these questions that vex the Swatis are properly answered, doubts about the sincerity of the central and provincial governments will remain. In fact, it is unfathomable to the ordinary Swati why the army stood by idly in 2007, and Islamabad took as long as it did to send in the army. The excuse that the government needed to wait for public opinion to gel behind the army action is, they say, laughable. Public opinion has nothing to do with the enforcement of the law. It is not essential whether public opinion would like something to be done or not, the simple test is whether it ought to be done and whether the law demands that it be done.
The deradicalisation centres were impressive; more for the hope they seemed to hold out for the brainwashed and, frankly, brain-dead pupils incarcerated within, rather than anything else. The adult inmates appeared repentant although most had been turned in by relatives and informers — though a few had come of their own accord. The vocational training imparted at the centres, one of them told me, would enable him to earn a living as an electrician. One can only hope he is right given the number of engineering graduates who are out of work and clamouring to go abroad even as labourers to do menial work.
The child suicide bombers were a pitiable lot. Their stories of torture at the hands of their Taliban mentors were gruesome. Apparently, the Taliban take the stupidest of them as suicide bombers, the next tier are those that serve as foot soldiers while the cleverest are trained to be extortionists. Most come from large families and two-thirds of them were from families where the fathers had left Swat to find work elsewhere. We were informed that when these children are finally released after the deradicalisation process has been completed (none have been released yet), they will be kept under surveillance.
Frankly, Swat must reinvent itself if it is to secure its long-term survival. To begin with, fundamental changes are needed in the local, judicial and administrative systems. The space made available to terrorists was enormous because of the failure of these systems to serve the basic needs of the population. In contrast to the interminable delays these days in resolving a property dispute, such cases were settled in days, if not hours, during the reign of the wali of Swat.
Swat’s economy needs to be kick-started, which could be done by rebuilding the road linking the main population areas with Kalam. This will also help to revive local tourism. There is no better way, especially in our current financial crunch, to generate resources for jobs.
The army and particularly the Inter Services Public Relations deserve credit for organising the seminar. It highlighted what is being done to reclaim Swat but, more importantly, what more must be done. It demonstrated that the army thinks as much, if not more, for the public interest as its own, negating allegations to the contrary. But if the knowledge gained from the seminar is to make a difference, sustained action must follow. Having liberated Swat, the army and the government working closely together must now ensure that those who died did not do so in vain.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2011.