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Operation Swat strains Pakistan

Operation Swat strains Pakistan

Author: G. Parthasarathy
Publication: The Hindu
Date: June 11, 2009
URL: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/2009/06/11/stories/2009061150250800.htm

Given the various challenges, with the country virtually bankrupt, and the constant American pressure to act militarily on its borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan's leadership will not be able to effect any change in its usual hackneyed rhetoric on relations with India

The Americans seem to be overjoyed at what they appear to believe will be an early end to Taliban control over large tracts of Northwest Pakistan following the ongoing Pakistani military operations in Swat. These military operations were literally forced on the army, as fears grew that unless action was taken, the Taliban would spread their wings to the very heart of the national capital. But, within two weeks of the commencement of the military operations, the country fac es a new crisis, which threatens its national solidarity and unity.

Speaking in Peshawar about the growing numbers of people (described as "internally displaced persons" or IDPs) who fled from their homes following the military operations, the Information Minister of the Northwest Frontier Province, Mr Iftikhar Hussein, revealed on May 29 that 2.8 million people had fled their homes from the scene of recent operations. He added that this was apart from 600,000 other Pakhtuns (Pathans), who had been forced out of their homes in earlier army operations, in the Province's tribal areas.

As more and more IDPs pour into refugee camps, Pakistan's resources are being strained. It has appealed to the UN and donor countries for urgent financial aid. But more important than the economic implications of the refugee influx, is the political fallout of the military operations. It is now clear that fearing the spread of Talibanisation, major provinces such as Sind and Punjab are refusing refuge and rehabilitation facilities for Pakhtuns fleeing the impact of the army's operations.

Ethnic clashes

In the Sind province, Sindhi nationalist organisations have joined the main Muhajir Political Party (MQM), which is now a coalition partner in the Provincial Government, in warning that they will not accept Pakhtuns who are IDPs. The MQM has warned that any influx of refugees into Karachi could lead to ethnic violence. Even before these developments, ethnic clashes between Muhajirs and Pakhtuns had rocked Karachi.

What has, however, surprised many Pakhtuns is the attitude of the largest province of Pakistan, Punjab. According to Mr Rahimullah Yufufzai, one of Pakistan's most respected journalists, even the Punjab Government, headed by Mr Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of former Pakistani Prime Minister, Mr Nawaz Sharif, has let it be known that it would not provide facilities for camps for IDPs in the province and that it would like camps to be set up within the NWFP for this purpose.

Legitimacy of Durand Line

Describing these developments, an anguished Mr Yusufzai asks: "Is it asking too much from politicians who are in and out of power and are supposed to show the way to the nation to be sensitive to the pleas of IDPs instead of rubbing salt in their wounds? Or, according to their interpretation, should the IDP issue be the concern of the NWFP and the Pakhtuns only? If this is the case, then one should be worried about the damage this attitude is causing to the concept of the nationhood of the Federation of Pakistan".

Significantly, posters depicting the map of separate "Pakhtunistan" have started appearing in the highways in the Northwest Frontier Province. Given the Pakhtun aversion to recognising the Durand Line as the International Border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, can demands to have a relook at the entire question of the legitimacy of the Durand Line become a renewed source of tension and a focal point of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan?

The military operations in Swat against the Taliban commenced in mid-May. How is it that in barely two weeks, 2.8 million citizens of Pakistan fled their homes? The fact is that whenever the Pakistan army commences operations against its own people, it uses excessive force. This was evident in Bangladesh in 1971, when Pakistan army brutality led to eleven million people fleeing as refugees to India. In operations in Baluchistan, in 1973-1974, and thereafter during the Musharraf dispensation, the army used air power and artillery indiscriminately; it used air power to assassinate the respected octogenarian Baluch leader, Nawaz Akbar Bugti. The Baluch used to describe the former Pakistan army chief, Gen. Tikka Khan, as the "Butcher of Baluchistan". Use of excessive force was also manifested in Pakistan army operations in rural Sind in 1983 and, thereafter, between 1992 and 1996 against Muhajirs in Karachi.

Tolerating duplicity

What are the implications of more violence of this nature against Pakhtuns of the NWFP? In the NWFP, the Pakistan army is today operating against the kinsmen of those whose cause it had championed in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and, thereafter, in backing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Worse still, the army and ISI have continued to provide haven and support to the Afghan Taliban leadership led by Mullah Omar in the capital of Baluchistan, Quetta, over the past seven years or more and similar support to the Afghan Taliban military commanders like Jalaluddin Haqqani in the tribal areas of the NWFP, while acting against Pakistani Pakhtuns, who support their Afghan kith and kin. For how long can this contradiction persist? Are the Pakhtuns so naive that they cannot see through such intrigues? Finally, for how long will Pakhtun soldiers and officers, who constitute over 20 per cent of the Pakistan army, tolerate such duplicity? Moreover, are the Americans so naive that they will not take note of such duplicity and turn on the heat for action against the Afghan Taliban and their al Qaeda allies?

A Pakhtun phenomenon

There has naturally been concern about the spread of Taliban influence eastwards towards India's borders. It has, however, to be remembered that the Taliban are predominantly a Pakhtun phenomenon. What is, however, now happening is that the influence of groups allied to the Taliban, made up predominantly of Punjabi Pakistanis, is now spreading across the Punjab Province of Pakistan? These organisations have cells in virtually all towns and cities in the province. Recent attacks in Lahore on the Sri Lankan cricket team, the Police Training facility and the ISI Headquarters are evidently the work of those now described in Pakistan as the "Punjabi Taliban" or the Tehreek-e-Taliban, Punjab. Conservative Wahhabi Muslim practices are being increasingly advocated and even sought to be enforced by these groups in Punjab Province. Can these challenges be overcome in Pakistan's most populous Province bordering India, given the jihadi inclinations of the army establishment and the ISI? The Lahore elite and India's "liberals" seem oblivious to and in a dangerous denial mode, on these developments.

Given these challenges and with the country virtually bankrupt and under constant American pressure to act militarily on its borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan's leadership will not be able to effect any change in its usual hackneyed rhetoric on relations with India. This was obvious from recent comments by Pakistan's Prime Minister, Mr Yusuf Raza Gilani, on Jammu and Kashmir. The more important question is, however, whether given the army's failure to act quickly and decisively against the Taliban, General Kiyani will seek to divert attention, by escalating terrorist violence across Pakistan's eastern borders?

(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

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