To fight militancy, Pakistan needs to conquer its radicalised north-west, then govern it
A CATASTROPHE is unfolding in Swat, a picturesque region of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) once loved by honeymooners. Nearly 2.4m people are reported to have fled an army offensive against Taliban militants, launched early this month at America’s behest. Thousands of civilians are trapped, with dwindling supplies of clean water and food. Hundreds are alleged to have been killed or maimed. On the evidence of two previous offensives in Swat, this may achieve nothing good. It risks leaving Swatis even angrier with their government and more vengeful than before, hardening the Taliban’s hold over the region. In a country as unstable as Pakistan, it is tempting to fear, America’s new foreign-policy chiefs should be more careful what they ask for.
For all that, the government was right to take military action to drive the Taliban from Swat. The most economically developed area of Pakistan in militant hands, it has long been prime evidence for those who accuse the government of scarcely trying to quell the militancy sweeping the north-west of the country. Unlike the semi-autonomous tribal areas adjoining NWFP, many of whose Pushtun inhabitants fight for the Taliban on both sides of the border with Afghanistan, Swat has a semblance of a functioning state. Its better-educated people have no love for the Islamist hooligans in their midst. Yet the army’s stuttering campaigns, and a recent effort to appease the militants by offering to institute Islamic law in Swat and other parts of NWFP, have strengthened their control over it.
One reason for optimism is that, on early signs, this offensive is more serious than its forebears in Swat and elsewhere (see article). During the army’s last fight in Swat, which ended in February, a small force tried to drive the Taliban from Mingora, the district’s biggest city, with shellfire. This resulted in many civilian deaths and local fury. With a bigger force, including 6,000 soldiers reportedly shifted from the Indian border, the army now seems to be fighting more carefully.
Another hopeful sign is that many Pakistanis claim to support this offensive. Hitherto, most have considered the army’s war against the militants as a regrettable service to America. But recent Taliban excesses, including their well-publicised flogging of a teenage girl, have convinced many that the Islamists need pegging back. The Urdu media, which are roundly anti-American, back this offensive, and the main political parties have declared their support. To keep that consensus and confound the Islamic parties which remain outside it, the army must redouble its efforts to minimise civilian casualties and the government must do more to care for the displaced.
After the battle, prove you’re a state
But if the offensive is to mark a real turning-point in Pakistan’s flailing war against the Taliban, the government needs above all to train and equip NWFP’s police and local administration to control the ground its soldiers have cleared, and to oversee the economic development that must follow. The government’s failure to plan for this in the past, far less achieve it, has been the main reason for the Taliban’s recent successes.
Given the weakness of Pakistan’s civil institutions, this is a daunting task. In the tribal areas, where the army is expected to resume campaigning after it finishes in Swat, and where the state is currently a figment, addressing it will require serious thought. Unless it attends to these basics, Pakistan will neither turn back the Taliban tide nor retain popular support for its effort. Even now, few Pakistanis may consider the Taliban to be the existential threat to their country America says it is. But all Pakistanis can appreciate the merits of having better government. Pakistan has to show it can provide one.