Paradise Regained: Swat One Year On

May 25, 2010

A Pakistani army checkpost on a hilltop keeps watch over the valley in upper Swat (Photo by Reza Jan)
 

The author was in Swat District during April and May 2010, interviewing police and military commanders, touring the area, and speaking with local people.

 

MINGORA: May 5, 2010 marked the one-year anniversary of the start of the Pakistani military operation to push Taliban militants out of the country’s Swat valley. One year on, a spate of militant attacks are causing some to question the long-term success of Operation Rah-e Rast.[1] A look at the region reveals that such fears are likely premature, and that conditions on the ground would make a Taliban resurgence difficult. The road back to normalcy in Swat, however, is not without its problems.

 

Key Points:
  • One year on, the Pakistani army has largely broken the Taliban’s hold and regained control of the Swat valley.

  • Rapid repatriation of IDPs and active support of the population has resulted in a high degree of local and national public support for the army. The resultant increase in human intelligence in Swat has proved critical in dismantling Taliban networks and preventing their resurgence.

  • Despite military and security successes, much of the rebuilding and compensation process remains incomplete and underfunded; it is progressing only very slowly.

  • While incidents of violence will continue to occur, the Taliban will not likely be able to regain the hold it had over Swat from 2007-9.

 

Disturbing the Peace: Recent Incidents of Violence

Rare incidents of violence in the scenic Swat valley have punctuated the past few weeks. The region has been largely peaceful following the conclusion of military operations in Swat and the Taliban have been unable to exert the control they exercised in the past. However, during April, seven people were reportedly assassinated in incidents of “target killings,” as they are known in Pakistan. Those killed were largely members of “village defense committees,” organizations created by locals in towns and villages to oppose the Taliban and cooperate with security forces in rooting out militants and their supporters.[2] A suicide bomber managed to detonate his vest in a separate incident, killing three people in Mingora, the district headquarters, on May 1.

This recent spate of attacks has led some media observers to conclude that the Pakistani Taliban have returned and that peace has vanished from Swat once again. The details behind these incidents, however, and the general situation on the ground do not provide evidence of a militant resurgence.

A small firefight broke out in and around a house in Kanju, a town not far from Mingora, as the army had located the perpetrators of the “target killings”. The four militants killed were people known to have carried out similar assassinations, according to local journalists. One militant, Pir Ehsanur Rehman, reputedly built suicide bombs.[3]

The information leading to the discovery of the militants’ location came from tips provided by locals—a significant shift in local attitudes toward militancy. Militants previously killed anyone suspected of giving information to the authorities, particularly during the period prior to the start of military operations when the Taliban held sway. Most of the military’s information about the militants has come from local human intelligence networks since the defeat of the Taliban, according to Pakistani military officers.[4]

Local human intelligence also played a role in the response to the  May 1 suicide bombing in Mingora. Local residents alerted the military to the presence of several suicide bombers in the city, allowing the authorities to trail and arrest one of the bombers prior to the planned attack. [5] Security forces then shut down the market where other bombers were suspected to be hiding and cleared civilians off Mingora’s streets. The military killed two more militants during a search operation and one of the bombers detonated a suicide vest, killing three people and producing the headlines that have led some to question the resiliency of peace in Swat.[6] The death toll, however, could have been much higher had the military not intercepted the bombers prior to their planned operation and reduced civilian casualties by clearing the streets, says Lt. Col. Akhtar Abbas, the army’s spokesman in Swat. [7]

The curfew imposed in the city following the attack ended within an hour. Soon after, shops opened, residents crowded markets, and life resumed as normal.[8] A bombing in the city four or five months ago would lead to an immediate and extended city-wide curfew and life would grind to a halt, according to local sources.[9]

 

Security Presence in Mingora and Police Force Reconstruction

Security in the city remains tight nevertheless. Security forces continue to maintain checkpoints and it is rare to see any populated areas or roads that are not being patrolled or watched by the army, the police, or the Community Police, a unit created after the Swat operation to involve locals in the provision of security and bolster the undermanned district police.[10] Locals say they are sometimes inconvenienced by the heavy security force presence, but recognize that they exist for their own protection. Even so, there are far fewer checkpoints today than there were a few months ago and residents are now able to travel much more freely.[11]

The army seems to recognize, nevertheless, that it cannot maintain its current posture indefinitely. It has started to withdraw somewhat from more visible positions like checkpoints; police and local law-enforcement are increasingly filling that role. The army is gradually becoming more involved in conducting oversight in place of active involvement in security efforts.

The reconstruction of the Swat police has made this increasingly possible. At the start of the Swat operation in May 2009, over 800 policemen had deserted their posts. The local law-enforcement mechanism was badly damaged.[12] The Taliban threatened to kill policemen or their family members if they did not cease working; many complied with the threat. Since then the police force is successfully reconstituting itself. There are over 3,000 policemen in the district today, as well as over 3,200 local Community Police officers and over 800 members of the police’s Elite Force, made up of ex-soldiers.[13] The District Police Officer, Qazi Ghulam Farooq, said:

Initially we were worried about recruitment numbers, and were planning on advertising a recruitment drive for over a thousand slots in the whole of Malakand Division [comprising seven districts including Swat]. Thankfully, however, there was great enthusiasm for joining up and all the positions ended up being filled by Swatis.[14]

 

Swat’s Most Wanted

Most residents of Swat agree that security has improved markedly over time.[15] Major General Ashfaq Nadeem, the commander of the 37th Infantry Division responsible for lower Swat, says he defines strategic victory in Swat as a “long-lasting, sustainable peace.”[16] Lt. Col. Abbas concedes that incidents such as the recent assassinations or suicide bombing may continue to occur, but that they remain singular, unorganized incidents. “The Taliban can never return in the same manner as they once did.”[17]

The military is continuing to work to make sure that is the case. High-profile operations in Swat are now rare, but military officers say they continue to seek intelligence to locate and act against remaining Taliban militants and their supporters, using the local intelligence networks described above.[18]

The small size of most communities outside of the few large cities in Swat and the high level of confidence locals have so far displayed in cooperating with the army makes it unlikely that organized resistance could take root in populated areas unbeknownst to locals, and hence the military. The village defense committees, which the locals organized and the military supported to root out the Taliban, have aggressively sought to find out and inform on suspected militants in their own communities. They have often resorted to punishing suspected militants themselves rather than turning them over to the authorities. This vigilante justice does, according to local committee members, deter a Taliban return, but its continued employment will raise significant concerns and hamper the ability of governmental security and judicial infrastructure to take firm root in Swat.[19]

This aggressive pursuit of Swat-based militants extends beyond Swat, as far away as Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. Military sources say they are trying to ensure that militants who continue to hide in Swat or have escaped the region altogether cannot resume their activities.[20] Pakistani newspapers frequently report the arrests of Swat-based Taliban all over the country; it is likely that the extended informant networks created in Swat have an important role to play in these arrests. On May 3, the military announced that anyone involved in militancy in Swat had until May 5 to turn themselves in or their houses would be destroyed and their families expelled from Swat and its surrounding districts.[21] Some militants have turned themselves in while many others have already had their houses destroyed.[22]

 

Rebuilding Swat

Locals take a more mixed view of reconstruction and rehabilitation. Over 2.5 million people fled the fighting in the district in a matter of days following the launch of Operation Rah e Rast in May 2009. Many walked dozens of miles on foot and through difficult terrain in order to reach safety, as preparations for the exodus had proven grossly inadequate.[23]

By the end of May 2009, over 170,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) were housed in camps and schools run by the government and international NGOs in Mardan, Swabi, and other neighboring districts in the Northwest Frontier Province (or NWFP, known now as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa). The vast majority of the 2.5 million registered IDPs stayed with host families, relatives, or in rented homes. Government-allotted funds, international donations and support from Pakistanis across the rest of country funded the aid needs of the displaced, including some of the costs for those who stayed outside government-run camps.[24]

The army began declaring parts of the district safe for people to return to starting in mid-July 2009. Between 93 and 96 percent of those displaced from Swat have now returned home, but much of the destruction remains.[25] Over 400 schools, and almost 8,500 houses, shops and hotels were either partially damaged or completely destroyed during the period of Taliban control as well as during the subsequent fighting between militants and security forces,, according to numbers provided by the military Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR).[26]

The army initially took the lead in much of the reconstruction. It helped to renovate or rebuild a number of schools, clinics, bridges, mosques and roads, among other projects. [27] Repair work on over 200 schools has yet to begin, however, and several police stations still lie in rubble.[28] The army says it has completed a survey in conjunction with the local government to provide reimbursement to individuals whose homes or businesses were destroyed during the fighting, but few people have been thus far received compensation.[29] Large-scale reconstruction in Swat has yet to occur, according to a local journalist.[30] 

Both the military and the government attribute the delayed reconstruction to a lack of funding.[31] Compensation for private individuals alone requires over $17.5 million (Rs 1.5 billion). This does not include those who require compensation for losses of family members.[32] One local official complained that international NGOs could provide immediate relief aid but few had the financial support to conduct the long-term reconstruction that is required. “They are producing beggars…people now expect handouts,” the official protested, stating that the NGOs tended to focus on short impact projects and, once the money ran out, there was nothing left for long-term development.[33]

The army is aware of the danger of these shortcomings. According to Major General Asfhaq Nadeem, soon after the operation “the prestige of the army was at its peak;” however, he says, “we know that this will not last” unless the pace of development, the effectiveness of government administration, and the delivery of compensation speeds up.[34]

 

Conclusion—The Search for Normalcy

The hold of the Taliban in Swat has been broken, the army continues to remain popular, and, for most people, life appears to be returning to ‘normal’. Yet, as long as two whole divisions worth of soldiers are required to maintain public confidence in security, the situation cannot be wholly normal. Security has improved remarkably and the local administration appears to be reappearing, albeit slowly. The broken judicial system was a primary grievance for many Swat residents that allowed the Taliban’s calls for Shari’a courts to gain public traction; while the system is far from fixed, cases are being heard and ruled on faster than under the regular judicial system, prior to the implementation of Shari’a law in April 2009. New guidelines limiting case durations have, in some magistracies, seen backlogs of thousands of cases halved in a matter of months, according to one local magistrate.[35]

The Achilles heel for peace in Swat appears to be reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts. Governmental inefficiency at the provincial level and a dire lack of funds could eventually undercut public support for government efforts in Swat.

 Attacks like those seen in previous weeks shake public confidence but they were not the first since the conclusion of major operations in Swat, and they are unlikely to be the last. The security trends in Swat on the whole continue to be positive. For the moment there now appears to exist an acceptable level of security, which allows people to lead near-normal lives.



[1] “Militants disrupt peace in Swat valley,” BBC, April 30, 2010. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8653937.stm (Accessed May 5, 2010)
[2] “Militants disrupt peace in Swat valley,” BBC, April 30, 2010. Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8653937.stm (Accessed May 5, 2010)
[3] Author’s conversation with Lt. Col. Akhtar Abbas, ISPR, Fayaz Zaffar, Aaj News, and Shehzad Alam, Ary News, Mingora, April 27, 2010
[4] Author’s conversation with Lt. Col. Akhtar Abbas, ISPR, Mingora April 27 and May 1, 2010.
[5] Ibid
[6] Fayaz Zafar, Aaj News TV coverage of attack, May 1, 2010
Collective TV news coverage of attack from Aaj, Geo and ARY News channels, May 1, 2010
[7] Author’s conversation with Lt. Col. Akhtar Abbas, ISPR, Mingora May 1, 2010.
[8] Author’s observations during April/May 2010 research trip to Swat
“Seven killed in Mingora gun, bomb attacks,” The News, May 2, 2010. Available at http://www.thenews.com.pk/top_story_detail.asp?Id=28588 (Accessed May 5, 2010)
[9] Based on author’s conversations with Mingora locals
[10] Author’s observations during April/May 2010 research trip to Swat
[11] Based on author’s conversations with local residents of Mingora, April/May 2010
[12] Figure provided by Swat Police, Mingora, April 29, 2010
[13] Figure provided by Swat Police, Mingora, April 29, 2010
[14] Author’s conversation with Swat District Police Officer, Qazi Ghulam Farooq, Mingora, April 29 2010
[15] Based on author’s conversations with locals in Mingora, Khwazakhela, and other locations in Swat, April/May 2010
[16] Author’s conversation with Maj. Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem, Malakand, April 28, 2010
[17] Author’s conversation with Lt. Col. Akhtar Abbas, ISPR, Mingora April 27, 2010
[18] Author’s conversations with members of village defence communities, May 2010
Author’s conversations with army officers, April/May 2010
[19] Author’s conversations with members of village defence communities, May 2010
[20] Author’s conversations with army officers, April/May 2010
[21] “Swat Taliban leaders given until May 5 to surrender,” Daily Times, May 4, 2010. Available at  http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2010\05\04\story_4-5-2010_pg7_7
[22] Author’s observations during April/May 2010 research trip to Swat
Author’s conversations with army officers, April/May 2010
Author’s onversations with members of village defence communities, May 2010
[23] “Pakistan NWFP Displacement, Situation Report #1,” UN OCHA, May 29, 2009. Available at http://pakistanidps.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/pakistan-nwfp-sitrep-no-1-29may09.pdf (Accessed May 5, 2010)
Author’s conversation with Fayaz Zafer, Aaj News, Mingora April 27, 2010
[24] “Pakistan NWFP Displacement, Situation Report #1,” UN OCHA, May 29, 2009. Available at http://pakistanidps.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/pakistan-nwfp-sitrep-no-1-29may09.pdf (Accessed May 5, 2010)
“Displaced by Conflict: Humanitarian Assistance,” Omar Asghar Khan Foundation, August 2009.
Author’s conversation with official of local relief NGO, April 24, 2010
[25] Numbers calculated based on UN reports of people still displaced; variance due to differing figures of number initially displaced:
“Pakistan NWFP Displacement, Situation Report #1,” UN OCHA, May 29, 2009. Available at http://pakistanidps.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/pakistan-nwfp-sitrep-no-1-29may09.pdf (Accessed May 5, 2010)
“Crisis Persists in Pakistan’s Swat Valley Despite Return of Many Displaced,” UN News Centre, April 30, 2010. Available at http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=34542 (Accessed May 5, 2010)
“Displaced by Conflict: Humanitarian Assistance,” Omar Asghar Khan Foundation, August 2009.
Author’s conversation with official of local relief NGO, April 24, 2010
[26] Based on information booklet on Reconstruction and Rehabilitation provided by ISPR, April 27, 2010
[27] Ibid
Author’s conversation with Lt. Col. Akhtar Abbas, ISPR, Mingora April 27, 2010
Author’s conversation with Maj. Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem, Malakand, April 28, 2010
[28] Author’s conversation with local government official, May 2010
Author’s observations during April/May 2010 research trip to Swat
[29] Author’s conversation with Lt. Col. Akhtar Abbas, ISPR, Mingora April 27, 2010
Author’s conversation with local government official, May 2010
[30] Author’s conversation with Fayaz Zafar, Aaj News, Mingora April 27 2010
[31] Author’s conversation with Lt. Col. Akhtar Abbas, ISPR, Mingora April 27, 2010
Author’s conversation with Maj. Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem, Malakand, April 28, 2010
Author’s conversation with local government official, May 2010
[32] Based on information booklet on Reconstruction and Rehabilitation provided by ISPR, April 27, 2010
Author’s conversation with local government official, May 2010
[33] Author’s conversation with local government official, May 2010
[34] Author’s conversation with Maj. Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem, Malakand, April 28, 2010
[35] Author’s conversation with local magistrate, Swat district, May 2010