What Next for Swat?

What Next for Swat?

Thursday, 27 August, 2009

Following the army’s offensive in Swat, the Pakistani government is claiming that a reinforced police force in the region will be enough to maintain law and order and keep the Taleban at bay. But this strategy may be misguided.

There are indications that the Taleban were not comprehensively defeated by the army operation and remain a significant threat. And plans for bolstering the police to counter the remaining Taleban look to have serious shortcomings.

The army claimed last month that its offensive, launched after the breakdown of the peace deal in Swat in March, has eliminated the Taleban. However, the operation was concluded almost as soon as the region’s main town of Mingora had been taken. Since then, there has been little independent verification of the army’s claims. The army has not given any indication that it has killed key commanders or significant numbers of militants.

Yet the authorities now seem to be suggesting that the Taleban in the region are a much diminished force that can be dealt with by strengthening police forces.

The government of North West Frontier Province, NWFP, where Swat is located, has announced that it is forming a new community police force in the district. The new force is intended to treble current policing capacity: new Swat police chief Sajid Khan Mohmand told the French news agency AFP that he wants to recruit 4000 officers to reinforce the current local contingent of 2200 regular policemen.

But only 112 officers have so far been recruited. Moreover, before the March peace deal, when the Taleban carried out intimidation and assassinations throughout Swat, there were mass resignations by regular police as a result of Taleban threats.

Officers regularly took out adverts in the press announcing their resignation in an attempt to get themselves removed from the Taleban’s list of targets which it broadcast on a weekly basis.

Even if more recruits are found, there may well be question marks over their professionalism. There are no reports of how, or if, the community police will be trained; and neither the NWFP police department nor the provincial government’s information department have been available to comment on this. Given the low standards of training among the regular police, it seems unlikely that a new force will be any better equipped.

In addition to doubts over police effectiveness, there are indications that officials may have underestimated the strength of the Taleban. Only the two main towns in Swat, Mingora and Saidu Sharif, are fully under government control.

Officials seem to be hoping that the recent arrest of Maulana Sufi Muhammad, the 78-year-old Swat Taleban leader, will decapitate the Taleban’s command structure in the rest of Swat, allowing police to round up the remnants of the group.

But the Taleban in Swat is in reality run by Maulana Fazlullah, Sufi’s son-in-law. Fazlullah is known as “Mullah FM” for his fiery anti-government broadcasts across several illegal FM radio stations in Swat. He was also responsible for skirmishes with local security forces after the peace deal that may have prompted its collapse. He remains at large and his radio broadcasts continue.

Sufi had apparently managed to rein in Fazlullah while the March peace deal was negotiated, exerting enough influence over his son-in-law to provide a temporary ceasefire. But he ultimately failed to control Fazlullah, who was responsible for renewed fighting just before the deal collapsed. With Sufi out of the way in jail, Fazlullah is likely to be emboldened.

Fazlullah may gain further authority from the continuing strength of his fellow Taleban in Waziristan, a district of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas located on the Afghan border. Taleban there appear to have quickly recovered from the death of Pakistan-wide Taleban leader Baitullah Mesud, who was injured in a recent American drone attack. Hakimullah Mehsud, a close aide of the deceased leader, claims to have been chosen as his successor at a shura (council).

Fazlullah is the brother of a Taleban commander killed in fighting in Waziristan in 2006. Fazlullah’s association with the resilient Taleban command in Waziristan is likely to reinforce militants’ loyalty to him in Swat.

Yet despite evidence that the Taleban continue to represent a significant threat to Swat and the police may not be able to control them, the authorities persist in casting the insurgents as something of a spent force.

Senior officials seem to be suggesting that the only real danger they pose is in sowing communal tensions in Pakistan. Last week, the governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer asserted that militants from Swat who fled the army operation were behind recent violence between Christians and Muslims in Punjab. The province’s law minister Rana Sanaullah claimed the Taleban were spreading rumours that Christians in Gojra district had desecrated the Koran.

The government’s plans for Swat do therefore seem overly optimistic and risk allowing the Taleban to mount a comeback.

This new strategy may be a result of clashing pressures on the government. Pakistanis initially broadly supported the military operation in Swat, but the resulting refugee exodus was much larger than anyone had anticipated and there was domestic pressure to wrap up the campaign quickly. However, the government was also under pressure from the international community to deliver a knock-out blow to the Taleban.

So withdrawing the army quickly and deploying police appears to be an attempt to communicate to domestic and international audiences that refugees can safely return because the insurgents have been routed. This might take the pressure off the authorities for now, but officials might regret their strategy if the Taleban in Swat resist as effectively as their comrades in Waziristan.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.

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