Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Islam | Tags: conscience, counter insurgency, drones, military contractors, robotic warfare
When I arrived in Pakistan May 25 the Pakistani military (617,000 active personnel and 517,000 reservists, 7th largest in the world) was three weeks into an operation in the Swat valley designed to liberate this one time Buddhist kingdom from the Taliban. The upbeat news carefully crafted by civilian-military writers since journalists were not allowed in the area trumpeted the killing of about 20 Taliban every day plus one to three Taliban commanders. The impression then was that the operation would take about a month after which the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons formerly referred to as refugees) would be allowed to return. In the weeks that followed IDP numbers grew from one million to two and three million people.
IDPs from temperate climates now found themselves in sweltering refugee complexes or with relatives in lowland cities where temperatures in the summer exceed 100 degrees. They left behind wheat fields ready for harvest, fruit orchards, schools, universities and a developing economy. Many left hurriedly on orders from the military with nothing but the clothing they wore. Without a massive outpouring of volunteer help from Pakistanis everywhere their situation would have been even more desperate.
But the operation in Swat continues and the daily body count remains constant almost like the body counts of Viet Nam more than 40 years ago where numbers were also manufactured. The decision to move against Taliban rule in Swat came quickly when truck loads of Taliban forces moved into another neighbouring district without warning to enlarge their reach. The Taliban lust for control sent a message to the majority population centers in Punjab and Sindh provinces to the South where there was little love for the Taliban, only a grudging acknowledgement that they are Muslims too. Suddenly in May of this year Pakistani people who had been engaged in questioning drone attacks and the American influence rose up to pressure its own military to stop fiddling and clean out the truck bombers, suicide missioners, and Taliban utopians.
Swat is a land of unusual natural beauty that is populated by Pashtoon people, an ethnic group of some 42 million people that occupy the harsh mountains of western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. The Pashtoon people are unified by a Persian related language that has many dialects among is various tribes. The Swat Valley begins about 100 miles from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad and rises towards the Hindu Kush mountains to the north. Swat has many village names that date back to the Greek influence when Alexander the Great made his conquering and pillaging trek across Asia.
Despite its size the Pakistan military is ill prepared for the kind of war it faces in Swat Valley or the other boundary areas of Pakistan. For sixty years all of Pakistan has sacrificed to build its military for the purpose of defeating India in Kashmir and if necessary on the Punjabi plain. To complement this overwhelming threat the Pakistan military sought to defeat its enemies on its west frontier like the Soviets and the Soviet successors in Afghanistan through proxie armies and guerilla forces of various persuasions but unified under the label Taliban. In 2001 when the Americans decided to go after Osama Bin Laden it turned out that he was considered a important guest of selected Pashtoon tribes. Local custom dictates that tribes care for and protect their guest with their lives.
The Pakistani military has been reluctant to abandon its carefully nurtured asset, the Taliban. In Swat and other border areas Taliban check points and operations were often coordinated with the Pakistani military. The fact that Taliban were Muslim brothers, allbeit militant activists was not necessarily troubling to military commanders. In fact when some military groups were ordered to attack and kill Taliban, selected officers resigned because of their conscientious objection to killing Muslims. During my recent visit I was told of soldiers killed in battle who were not honoured for their service when their bodies were returned to their native villages because they were killed in war against Muslim brothers.
This history of the Pakistani military and the current nation wide engagement over the question of what it means to be a Muslim nation, brings us to the present. The United States government has set aside 736 million dollars to build a new fortress embassy and refurbish its consulates in Pakistan because of the deteriorating security situation. The US has also targeted $400 million for counter insurgency assistance for Pakistan this year. And, the US has announced its intention to provide $1.5 billion in assistance to Pakistan for the next five years. Even for the US government which has gotten into the habit in Iraq of throwing around money very casually this adds up.
It suggests a absence of confidence that the Swat operation will be completed in one or two months that in fact it will go on for months, maybe years. It is a monumental commitment for a nation like the US that is not particularly distinguished, experienced or successful in countering insurgency. Right now Washington is happy because they think they have finally gotten the Pakistan military to start fighting the real enemy, the Taliban.
These are dangerous times. We now face a situation where a nation of 175 million people is engaged in a major violent internal struggle for its existence. Every week if not every day there is a car bomb somewhere. Questions of development, education, and nutrition will have to be put off longer while the rupees and dollars buy hellfire missiles and better guns. How will Pakistan weather this violence and threat over time? There is not a deep residue of confidence in Pakistan about American advice because of the inconsistent and sporadic nature of US aid and reliability over the last 60 years. The regional conflict which also includes Afghanistan is now Obama’s war and it could destroy his administration if things unravel as they might.
Pakistan is gifted with a layer of South Asian wisdom and I was the recipient of some of that during my recent visit. Some of these voices will probably be silenced and imprisoned in the coming months but their spirits will endure. Our work on this side is to find ways to lift the veil of secrecy. This situation is complex but complexity should never deter us from working through the fog to the pull towards authentic reconciliation. Most of all Pakistan needs space to sort out its own priorities and determine how Muslim convictions can energize it into the future. Another quirky US green zone, Marine guards, civilian contractors, and advanced digitized security gimmicks in a Muslim country will do little to give space for this to happen.
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