Swatting at flies

There is an army answer and a civilian answer, in Swat, and the truth perhaps lies somewhere in between.

Mehreen Zahra-malik October 21, 2012

“Clear, hold, transfer.” “Dialogue, deterrence, development” — these are the fuzzwords of the army and the civilian administration’s respective visions for Swat since military operations began back in 2007 and the Valley emerged as the so-called ‘model’ of counterinsurgency.

But the attack on Malala Yousufzai has exposed that reality lies in another Valley altogether: one that has not been pacified. Efforts both by the military to decisively ‘hold’ and ‘clear’ the area of insurgent elements as well as the ‘development’ the civilian administration was supposed to undertake seem to have had no more effect in Swat than a fly swatter would have.

What went wrong?

There is an army answer and a civilian answer, and the truth perhaps lies somewhere in between.

‘Clear and hold’ was a success in Swat, army mandarins will tell you. We’ve flushed out insurgents from the area, created space between them and the population and largely denied them access and freedom of movement in the Valley.

But it’s the ‘build and transfer’ part — constructing hospitals, schools and roads, bringing in jobs and businesses, and then transferring the area to a stable government and civilian security force — where the army says it has faced difficulty. As one recently retired security official put it: “We can’t simply kill our way out of Swat. If the civilians were ready to take over, the army chief would order a troop pullout tomorrow.”

The civilians have their own version: that this is not a question of their capacity but of the army’s will to transfer power. Alarmingly, they increasingly speak of corruption and misuse of authority by security forces, claiming that the military may be deliberately prolonging the conflict to retain its hold in these areas.

Thus goes the blame game between the army and the civilians in Swat and seldom the twain do meet.

The truth, however, may be a little more complicated than these two dichotomous narratives suggest.

For starters, it’s easy to thumb one’s nose at the army for claiming ‘clear and hold’ has been successful, given that militants are consistently able to sneak in from Kunar into Dir and from there into Swat Valley to carry out sporadic attacks, targeted killings and kidnappings. Merely flushing militants into other areas or across the border instead of effectively neutralising them has left the local population in a state of perpetual fear and, according to the civilian narrative, confusion about where to place blame: “This is the army’s formula: clear and hold 90 per cent areas, leave 10 per cent to the militants, and transfer nothing to the civilians. Why are we responsible?”

Yes, they are: for doing nothing to counter the myths the army has always used to play up its own role in protecting disturbingly large swathes of the homeland against enemies, both seen and unseen.

Civilian leaders and law-enforcement agencies in Swat are legitimately paralysed by fear of openly taking on extremism and the Taliban, with the ruling ANP having lost at least 700 workers in the war on terror, the police force in Swat being undertrained and understaffed, and peace lashkars having been turned into sandbags due to lack of protection from the very army that encouraged them to galvanise. “If Taliban don’t attack us, we thank them, not the army,” said a lashkar leader.

However, security officials are also not wrong when they say the civilians need to face their fears: “If we’ve lost 3,500 soldiers, what are they afraid of? At least one generation will have to risk fighting these demons.”

In fact, instead of being the ‘turning point’ many hoped it would become, the Malala shooting has drawn battle lines across the political landscape, and seen political parties like the PML-N actively trying to abort efforts inside and outside parliament to generate consensus against militancy. Surely that is not something for which we can lay the blame at the door of a Janus-faced military establishment.

Also, the present civilian set-up’s lack of coordination with security agencies — a common complaint — also partly stems from the fact that the party in power, the ANP, is a traditionally anti-establishment party, uncomfortable with talking to and trusting the military establishment. Were the N-League or the JUI at the helm of affairs in these areas, the civilian administration may have been successful in cultivating a better relationship with the army. Also, the ANP’s two so-called attempts at holding dialogue with the Taliban were not transparent and, hence, did not generate wider support and ownership. But this is no attempt to compose a panegyric to the army’s accomplishments or swallow the civilian Kool-aid. In fact, while the civilians have legitimately erred, it is also true that the army is unnaturally wedded to its “you need us” line. When the civilian government in February 2011 leaked that the army would turn over security to civil law-enforcement agencies by April, the military immediately issued a denial and said the time was not yet right for a complete transferral.

Over a year and a half later, the time is still not ripe, and more and more questions are being raised about the wisdom of the army’s past and future strategy.

For example, what is it doing about the problem of “high-value targets” that are still at large and may not be in a position to gain control of areas but continue plotting comebacks and using new tactics to create sporadic terror and keep up pressure? While the number of suicide attacks and bomb blasts in Swat may have decreased, the more sinister issue of a concomitant increase in targeted killings, kidnappings and the intimidation of target populations cannot be wished away.

And if the battle in Swat and other areas is about a battle of hearts and minds, why is the army complacent about the growing perception that the only difference between militants and the army is that one side wears a uniform?

The unrest in Swat, however sporadic, is connected to the larger conflict across the tribal areas. As long as the army doesn’t finish the job it began and civilians don’t fight for their space, it will be hard to give them the ‘A’ grade Admiral Mike Mullen said they deserved in Swat. As things stand, ‘swatting at flies’ may be a much fairer assessment.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd,  2012.


Sultan | 10 years ago | Reply

@Hamza Baloch:

Wait till tomorrow--the floods in the Philippines will be blamed on him too!

amir jafri | 10 years ago | Reply

Ba Ba Blacksheep "education" system is the real curse upon Pakistan...As long as these white-crows with are at the jugular of Muslims and Pakistan the nations will continue to bleed and stay subservient to westoxification....Iran and Turkey are the countries where Pakistani students should go for education.

Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ

Most Read