In July 2010 Kalam looks different. Instead of the intimidating bands of Mullah Fazlullah, it is tourists and the army that roam this picturesque windswept valley. The presence of the thousands of tourists from the Punjab and elsewhere during the Kalam Festival also marked the consolidation of gains of the military operation in May 2009. Most people we met in Bahrain and Kalam were all smiles on the resumption of tourism and economic activity. But peace and business has returned to the Malakand region at a heavy cost.
Involvement in Malakand simply illustrates the story of a smart and efficient force — ie the army — which can easily discredit its own achievements. It won accolades from all and sundry, including the top US military high command, for its successes in Waziristan and Swat/Malakand. The army also has so far successfully held on to the regions it cleared of terrorists, including Malakand. As the special police force takes shape, the military continues to marshal the area because of lack of enthusiasm on the part of the provincial government to do so. It also took the lead in holding the Swat and Kalam festivals, attracting thousands of tourists after two years. Hundreds of hotels in Kalam (and in Bahrain, Madyan and Malam Jabba) had turned into ghost houses but the Swat and Kalam festival helped resuscitate them, re-employing some 20,000 people.
Yet, the army’s image also took a battering because of the obvious concentration of authority in the military. The army may have organised the tourism festival to ensure the presence of maximum number of people — friends and relatives — but this way of handling affairs went against it and also dented its image. While local people by and large appreciate the military's role in the clearing and holding of vast swathes of Malakand from militants, at the same time they are also wary of its predominant role in the governance and administration of the district.
It is beyond one’s comprehension as to why did the military establishment go for the kill — in its endeavour to ensure maximum outside participation? Why couldn’t it, if at all, outsource the job to the private sector, to avoid the stigma of being the ultimate controller of peace in Swat? Since perceptions are extremely important, one really has to tread the path to recovery with unusual caution. What strikes most upon entry into the valley are the Pakistani flags, painted over walls and shop shutters. Also displayed are slogans saluting the military for what it has done so far. The Taliban had hoisted their black or white flags over homes and forced residents to do the same. This is the analogy that people draw between the military and militants. Both, say the most, appear as an intimidating force that wants the residents to live by its diktat. One wonders whether this act was necessary at all because it led to criticism of the army’s perceived high-handedness. Claiming credit on their own soil for performing their primary job does not reflect positively on the institution.
Propagandist gimmicks do not create augur well or bring respect for any institution. It is the performance and how that institution carried out its job that matters — and it should speak for itself. What the army needs now is to push the civilians in the forefront and let them handle take charge. Preventing a relapse of the militancy from behind the scenes is a better way of ensuring a positive image and will help gain respect in people’s hearts. The road to recovery is still fraught with risks and thus necessitates caution. Negative perceptions can again easily turn the tide against state institutions.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 23rd, 2010.