Looking down at the city from a scratched window of the Pakistan Army’s Mi-17 transport helicopter, Mingora in early June gave off the air of a ghost town. This was hardly surprising, as the operations launched a month earlier by the military against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley were still continuing. On the ground, although the security forces had already regained control of about 70 percent of the district capital, 90 percent of the population that had fled remained away.
A densely populated city of nearly half a million residents, Mingora had been emptied by the military before launching the so-called Operation Rah-e-Rast, or Right Path. By mid-June, military sources were reporting that 1300 militants and 105 soldiers had been killed. Military Spokesperson Major-General Athar Abbas said the operation had managed to destroy the militants’ supply source as well as their command and control structure and training centres. “There is disruption between the commanders and the militants,” he said, and the militants were “on the run”. That is clearly not the end of the story, however. Even the military acknowledges that most of the Taliban members who fled could easily stage a comeback when the civilians return home, mixing in with the population.
To guarantee that this does not happen, Islamabad is trying to ensure the capture or death of the top leadership. It has announced rewards totalling PKR 91 million (USD 1.1 million) for 21 top Swat commanders, including Spokesperson Muslim Khan and Commanders Maulana Shah Dauran and Bin Yamin; those with news of chief Maulana Fazlullah, meanwhile, are being offered a whopping PKR 50 million (USD 618,000). “These leaders are the centre of gravity of the movement,” General Abbas told a press conference. “Unless and until they are killed, we cannot declare victory in this whole operation.” At press time, each of these top-tier leaders remained at large, and the military had thrice undertaken unsuccessful attempts to target Fazlullah. There have been successes, however, with around 60 militants being picked up in various refugee camps.
The leadership of the displaced population – almost three and a half million – seems likewise to be linking the operation’s success to the elimination of top Taliban leaders. “The local population will not accept the results of the operation if the top Taliban leaders are not captured alive or killed,” community leader Afzal Khan Lala said in Peshawar. Even as the military attempts to go forward, however, more long-lasting approaches are required. Both civilian and military establishments are now working on post-operation arrangements to install strong local administration, with an eye to thwarting the return of militancy to Swat. Around 2500 retired soldiers will be deployed to police the district for two years, with the federal government bearing the expenses. After a 5 June meeting between the military and the NWFP government on a post-operation roadmap, General Abbas stated that the political and military leadership was “very much optimistic” that the militants would not regroup in Swat.
Driving around Mingora in the immediate aftermath of Operation Rah-e-Rast only reinforced the sense of being in a ghost town – a bloody one at that, littered with the unburied corpses of militants being sniffed at by street dogs. Huge craters pockmarked the streets, serving as a reminder that the militants had mined the deserted city before fleeing. Nevertheless, what was striking was the relatively limited damage inflicted on the physical infrastructure after the intense fighting. Indeed, the only truly devastated areas were where the Taliban had set up command centres. Green Chowk, for instance, which constituted the militants’ stronghold, experienced more damage than any other place in the city. This was where they beheaded rivals, government employees and security personnel, and hung their bodies in the centre of the square, earning it the nickname Khonee (bloody) Square. Some private buildings occupied by militants had also been targeted by Cobra gunship helicopters and long-range artillery. The streets here were littered with broken electrical wires, collapsed walls and roofs, and shops with damaged shutters. It was rare to see a person.
“The civilians were given little time to prepare for migration to safer places,” said Khadim Hussain, a researcher at Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy in Islamabad. He explained that since the military could not publicise the exact date for launch of the operation, the provincial government in Peshawar could not make appropriate arrangements to transport civilians to safety. Without an official plan, a massive number of people took it upon themselves to leave. NWFP Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain said that on 11 June, some 3.8 million people fled the districts of Swat, Buner and Lower Dir. This, he said, constituted the largest displacement in the region since 1947; others have suggested that this has actually been the largest movement in modern history to take place within such a short period of time. These numbers have been disputed, however, with some authorities suggesting that the figure of 2.5 million is seen as more credible – still a massive number by any standard.
There were civilians left in Mingora, however. Some 40,000 were stranded by the continuous curfew imposed across the city for 20 days. Finally, on 31 May, the authorities announced a four-hour let-up of the curfew. During this period, young and old, men, women and children fled to the relief camps in the neighbouring districts of Swabi, Mardan and Peshawar, where the conditions are abysmal. “There are three types of people who still live in Mingora,” said Khadim Hussain. “Those who do not have the means to move; those who believe that the city is now secured; and those who refuse to leave because of their affection for Mingora.” The authorities have since sent teams to Mingora to restore telecommunication, electricity, water, health, education and facilities which were damaged during the fight. “We have set a 20 June deadline for provision of all basic civic amenities before letting people come back,” said the minister.
The numbers that fled during the recent military operation have to be added to the 554,000 displaced from Bajaur and South Waziristan last year during similar military offensives against the militants. Already strapped, the relief operations are now at a breaking point. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Pakistan has warned that humanitarian efforts for these internally displaced people will have to be scaled down if the international community “does not come up with immediate and generous financial assistance”. The office appealed for USD 543 million to meet the urgent needs of the displaced, but by 4 June it had received less than a quarter of that amount. Out of the 52 organisations requesting UN funds, 30 have received nothing.
The humanitarian situation has continued to deteriorate, with nine international aid agencies warning that a shortage of funds was threatening to force them to discontinue urgent operations. “This is the worst funding crisis we’ve faced in over a decade for a major humanitarian emergency,” said Jane Cocking, Oxfam’s humanitarian director. “One month into this emergency, we’re short by four million pounds and will have to turn our backs on some of the world’s most vulnerable people. In the same period after the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, we had 14 million pounds committed from the UN, governments and the public.” Shaheen Chughtai, head of Oxfam’s operations in Pakistan, said that his organisation planned to provide 120,000 displaced individuals with clean drinking water – a miniscule number in comparison to the pressing need. “And if we do not get more funds soon, we will provide clean drinking water to only 50,000,” he said. According to Cocking: “The only reason we haven’t faced a massive humanitarian meltdown is the generosity of families and communities of modest means who’ve looked after the vast majority of those who’ve fled the fighting.”
Having been the cause of such dislocation, the militants have lost significant public support in recent months, both in Swat and across Pakistan. One woman displaced from the Swat town of Kanju, and currently living in a relief camp in Swabi District, says of the Taliban militants: “They are beasts. They are not human. May god finish them all like they have finished us.” Yet the resentment began well before the most recent crisis imposed by the military operation. Over the past two years of increased Taliban influence in northwest Pakistan, lives had already been changing significantly for local residents. Forty-five-year-old Naz Muhammad, a resident of Malookabad in Mingora, was denied a job despite living close to an emerald mine. “The Taliban was in charge of the mine, and they refused me a job because I had not grown a beard,” he said. “Because of the Taliban, I could not find a job close to my home.” Naz was then forced to set up shop as a vendor after being refused a job in the mine, but the Taliban subsequently put a stop to all vending because they feared the vendors were spying for the government.
Today, animosity towards the Taliban echoes frequently through the relief camps. Many are calling on the military to ‘get the job done’ once and for all – clearly reference to previous operations that had been halted halfway allowing the militants to regroup. “We do not say the military should not target the Taliban – do it, but don’t leave anything for tomorrow,” said Shujaul Mulk, a resident of Mingora currently living in the Sheikh Yasin camp. “Doing the job in pieces will only bring a bad name to the government.”
And so battles continue to rage in two major towns of Swat – Kabal and Matta – after Taliban defeats were recorded in five other towns – Barikot, Mingora, Saidu Sharif, Khawazakhela, Behrain and Kalam. Kabal and Matta are seen as militant strongholds. The operation in Buner, south of Swat, has also been nearing a victory, according to the military, with less than 10 percent of the areas left to be ‘cleared’. But resistance in Lower Dir, west of Swat, remains significant. The Malakand operation, meanwhile, has provoked the strongest revenge attacks from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the umbrella of militant organisations headquartered in South Waziristan and led by Baitullah Mehsud. The 9 June bombing at the Pearl-Continental Hotel in Peshawar, for instance, has been claimed as a revenge attack for the ongoing military operation against the militants, as was the 12 June killing of the anti-Taliban cleric Sarfraz Naeemi at his mosque in Lahore.
The latter led, finally, to a much-anticipated announcement from the government of a “decisive offensive” against Baitullah Mehsud. “The government has decided to launch an operation against militants in FATA,” stated NWFP Governor Owais Ghani on 14 June, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas where Mehsud is based. “It has been decided that a comprehensive and decisive operation will be launched to eliminate Baitullah Mehsud and dismantle his network.” In what has now become an oft-repeated line, Ghani added that Taliban members are “tarnishing the image of Pakistan and maligning Islam”.
The Islamabad government has been able to utilise the groundswell of anti-Taliban sentiment that has arisen within the Pakistani public to take its fight directly to the top-level militant leadership. Even while some analysts wonder why news of the impending FATA operation was publicised before the operation itself got underway, others suggest that the military’s aim seems to be to weaken the militants enough to create conditions under which the government could dictate terms for a negotiated settlement. Very few are currently suggesting that military operations, though important, will solve the issue once and for all. Instead, the solution lies in political process, beginning with dialogue. In all previous political-led deals with the militants, the government has signed agreements from a position of weakness. This time around, the government seems keen on ensuring that any negotiation takes place at a time when it holds the cards.