ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Wednesday approved in principle the establishment of a ‘brigade-level’ cantonment for Swat and Malakand areas.
He gave the approval after a briefing given to him during a visit to Swat and Malakand.
The idea of a cantonment in Swat and Malakand was floated some five years ago. But a decision got delayed due to operations against militants in the area.
The proposed cantonment will be a small garrison and will house three to four infantry battalions comprising around 3,000 personnel, apart from additional numbers from allied services like supplies, medical corps etc.
The announcement to establish a cantonment in Swat means that the top brass has decided to finally wind up the operation and cut down the number of troops stationed there.
Currently, around one army division is stationed in Khwaza Khela area of Swat alone, which has an average size of around 40,000 troops. Besides, there are smaller deployments in Kanju area.
However, contrary to most other cantonments in the country, the Swat and Malakand cantonment will be a cluster of three stations — Malakand, Khwaza Khela and Kanju.
The army has a presence in Chakdara, Malakand, far more than 100 years.
But the people of Khwaza Khela are at odds with the army over the establishment of cantonment. They have refused to sell their agricultural and residential land needed for the station.
The third station will be across River Swat in Kanju township, Kabal tehsil, which overlooks Imam Dheri and Najya Hill. The area once housed the operational headquarters of Mulla Fazlullah.
Kanju is also located near Swat airport, giving the cantonment a direct access to the airstrip.
Contrary to Khwaza Khela, the situation is totally different in Kanju since its people are happy to have a military presence in their neighbourhood. Some members of Swat’s former royal family have even offered their land in Kanju area for a military establishment.
“We have offered our family land in Baraf Banda for the cantonment,” said Umar Farooq, a grandson of the late Miangul Jahanzeb, the Wali (ruler) of Swat.
But reliable sources in the army said that the land had been annexed by the provincial government and there were at least six claimants in the former royal family. The army will not like to become part of any family controversy, they added.
At present, the army is stationed in a semi-constructed college building in Kanju and there are chances that the local commanders will prefer to convert it into a permanent station after completing formalities with the provincial government.
“The prime minister lauded the role played by the army in bringing peace and stability to the area,” his office said in a statement, according to agencies.
Political analyst Hasan Askari said the army’s permanent presence would help prevent the return of Taliban insurgents to the area.
“It is because of the internal security situation and the threat of the return of militancy that the army is making a permanent presence in Swat,” he said.
“Had the army not been there, Taliban would have been in power in Swat.”
During a visit to a de-radicalisation centre in Sabawoon area, the prime minister said the government was alive to the issues of backwardness, unemployment and economic deprivation and was striving to address the issues through judicious distribution of resources.
He said the government desired to promote peace, brotherhood and co-existence in the country. He said the society was based on Islamic principles and the roots of Swat valley were also embedded in it. He said the government was trying to curb extremism and provide people equal opportunities of progress and development.
Mr Sharif lauded the role of armed forces in restoring peace and rehabilitating infrastructure in Swat, including reconstruction of schools, hospitals, roads and bridges, in collaboration with the civic administration and the people. He said their services would be remembered for long.
He said the de-radicalisation project had de-radicalised around 2,000 youngsters and helped them to live a normal life.
“I wish this programme is extended to other parts of the country…, where the youth has adopted such course and requires attention. They should be made healthy members of the society through constructive engagement. They are not enemies of Pakistan, but have lost their direction,” the prime minister added.
The scenic Swat district slipped out of government control after Taliban fighters led by cleric Maulana Fazlullah, now chief of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, took control of the area in 2007 and waged a campaign of beheadings, violence and multiple attacks on girls’ schools. They also shot Malala Yusufzai, girl campaigner for education to all, in the head, turning her into an international celebrity.
By July 2009 the army declared the region back under their control, saying the rebels had all been killed, captured or fled, but more than 20,000 troops remained in Swat and adjacent districts.