SWAT, known for its green meadows, gushing river and snow-capped mountains, has unfortunately come to relive its historic name, Suvastu — the white serpent — whose tenacity and viciousness has stung the political and military leadership so badly that both are now looking for new ways to put a lid on the monster of growing bloodshed and reclaim its fast-shrinking territory.
The idyllic valley has gone really bad, its image distorted beyond recognition. Pakistan’s most popular tourist destination is now haunted by death and fear; few officials now dare to go and serve there.
Nearly 800 policemen — half of the total sanctioned strength of police in Swat, have either deserted or proceeded on long leave on one pretext or the other.
Only one of the 600 police recruits trained by the military at the Punjab Regimental Centre in Mardan, volunteered to go and serve, while the others plainly refused to head to what is now being called the ‘valley of death’.
The second phase of the military operation Rah-i-Haq in July last to regain control of the northern district of the North-West Frontier Province appears to have made little headway.
Many analysts agree that the state writ has shrunk from Swat’s 5337square kilometre area to the limits of its regional headquarters of Mingora — a city of 36 square kilometres.
Indeed, local residents say militants routinely carry out patrolling in Mingora, where its central square, the Green Chowk, came to be known as ‘Chowk Zebahkhana’ or the slaughter square.
Just last month, militants dumped 27 bodies with a warning not to remove the corpses before 11 am. This coupled with sniper attacks forced the traffic cops to refuse duty in the city centre, prompting the military to impose a night curfew in the city, whose population has swelled in recent months for relative security.
Targeted killings have increased and those showing defiance were made examples for others. Pir Samiullah, who had taken on the militants, was killed and his body hung from a pole before it was removed and buried.
Pir’s death and the government’s inability and helplessness to respond in real-time and support him, is perhaps the last nail in the coffin. Officials acknowledge that encouraging and organizing popular support against the militants now is a pipe dream.
Contributing further to the already grim scenario is the growing negative public perception of the military operation that they say has killed more civilians than militants.
This public perception has been reinforced by rising civilian casualties, shrinking state authority, militants’ ability to strike anywhere and any time and military’s over-reliance on long-range artillery than putting boots on the ground.
No credible data is available to estimate the number of civilian casualties in the seven-month-old operation due to police absence in most militant-controlled areas and therefore, the resultant lack of reporting. But police officials say the figure ran in hundreds.
The damage caused to property and infrastructure since the emergence of militancy in Swat has been evaluated at Rs3 billion, according to a senior government official, as militants blow up bridges and schools. The number of schools blown up or torched now stands at 181 – the highest perhaps in any insurgency anywhere in the world in an area as small as Swat.
The battle for the airwaves in Swat has taken a new turn. Radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah is back on the air but even his radio has proved to be too weak against his lieutenant Shah Doran whose broadcastes are heard far and wide, thanks to a 500 KV transmitter to defeat government’s efforts to jam his sermons.
The government now plans to overcome the problem by setting up a one megawatt transmitter that, it believes, would effectively silence the militant radio propaganda.
With state authority on the wane in Swat, relationship between the political and military leadership also took a sharp plunge.
Frustration is mounting within the ANP. On December 18, at a parliamentary party meeting at the chief minister’s house, seven of its lawmakers from Swat threatened to resign. “They were very depressed,” said a senior party leader present in the meeting.
Predictably, the issue came up again for discussion at a cabinet meeting the following day, followed by public criticism by Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain that the government was “not satisfied with the military operation”.
Not a child’s play
An interview to a private television channel by senior party leader Hashim Babar accusing the security establishment of fomenting militancy, rubbed more salt into the wounds, sources within the ANP and security establishment acknowledge.
“The military was not happy,” a party official admitted. The ANP MPA from Swat, Mr Ayub Ashari, was called and given a piece of mind, as one official put it: “We have lost 142 men in Swat since July last. This is not child’s play. This is no friendly match,” a visibly angry security official said.
The ANP leaders defend their public statements and one of whom said: “When you see that the operation is not effective and is going on and on, causing more collateral damage, then how can you remain indifferent?”
“The militants have taken over Fata and now they want to take over the province. It’s clear. So should we remain silent and play second fiddle?” he asked. “We have been constrained to re-think our support to the military operation,” he said.
Security officials say that the political leadership at the helm was also to blame for failing to put in place a civil administration that responds to public needs and generate public support.
“We should have had the back-up support from the police and the civil administration which is not there. This has put us on the back foot,” the security official said.
“It’s a tough area and when you operate in an area where you don’t know who the enemy is and who your friends are, it makes things a lot more difficult,” he said.
But before things could reach breaking point, Army Chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani intervened. On December 25, in a meeting with the army chief, the political leadership agreed to overcome its differences with the military high command and devise a new strategy.
But that may leave another issue unaddressed. Both sides are piqued that the federal government was also dragging its feet on the amendments proposed in the so-called Shariah regulation promulgated in 1999.
The amendments, part of the May 2008 agreement with the militants in Swat, say the ANP leaders are central to helping restore peace in Malakand Provincially-Administered Tribal Area, of which Swat is a district.
President Asif Zardari returned the summary containing the proposed amendments with observations.
“Being head of a secular liberal party, he is worried that introducing Shariah in Malakand would harm his international image,” they said.
“What we are trying to do is to convince him that we are not enacting a new law. These are amendments to a law that already exists,” explained the senior ANP leader.
The new strategy, however, has already been put in motion. While the NWFP government awaits Mr Zardari’s approval to the amendments, it is working on a public statement that would commit the government to introduce Islamic judicial system in Malakand.
The statement – a suggestion by octogenarian Sufi Muhammad – is still in the works and does not include a time-frame. In return, the head of the banned Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi, has offered to leave his protest camp at Timergarah in native Dir and go to Swat to convince the militants to lay down their arms.
“I am an old man. I know I may be killed in the process but it’s worth the sacrifice,” a source privy to behind-the-scene negotiations quoted him as saying.
The security official concurred. “Whether the government introduces the amendments or issues a public statement, it would deny the militants the moral high ground of fighting for Shariah.”
Simultaneously, the government is also working, albeit quietly, to incorporate some of Sufi Muhammad’s suggestions in the proposed amendments to make it more acceptable to him and strengthen his hands vis-à-vis the militants.
The military, meanwhile, has begun to implement the new strategy since last week which, it says, would focus more on consolidating and securing the main supply routes and urban and rural centres “by putting more boots on the ground.”
Presently, it has four brigades in Swat including one from Rawalpindi overseen by a GOC (General Officer Commanding). “We have made some adjustments and we should be okay with it,” the official said.
To begin with, the military is gearing up to secure Mingora and its outer-parameters.
For its part, the government has agreed to depute three MPAs from Swat to set up a secured camp office in Mingora to touch base with their electorate and garner the essential public support.
But analysts say that while there has to be a more concerted and focussed military operation to overcome the militancy, the government too needs to devise a back-up socio-economic development plan to put in place once an area is cleared and returned to the civil administration.
“This is a fight to defend a state system. There is growing cynicism amongst the people in Swat whose feeling of helplessness has been compounded by the state to provide security and social service delivery. This is where we all have to act, the sooner the better. The blame-game is not going to take us anywhere,” a senior official said.