Clearing Misconceptions on Pakistan’s War in Swat

Amid all the conflicting voices that report on the Pakistani military’s ongoing operation in Swat, it is difficult to ascertain what the reality is.  There are however a few misconceptions that must be cleared.

Is this Pakistan’s war?

This is most definitely Pakistan’s war, but those targeting Pakistan and its people are not always Pakistani.  A multinational conglomerate of Arabs, Uzbeks, Chechens, Turkomen along with Pakistani militants are responsible for the insurgency in Pakistan’s northwest and for terrorist activities in the rest of Pakistan.  As their power grew, they were joined by local criminal networks, which assisted them in targeted killings and kidnapping for ransom.  Those most often targeted are law enforcement personnel, and Pakistan’s police forces have borne the brunt of the attacks.

There is widespread realization in Pakistan today that these anti-state elements need to be eliminated for Pakistan’s own sake and those who continue to speak of this operation as “America’s war” or “America’s war for which Pakistan is being paid” are but a fraction of the population.  Primarily such rhetoric is spewed from a few members of the right-wing media and bitter politicians, like those representing the Jamaat Islami and playboy-turned-born-again Muslim, Imran Khan.  Interestingly, Mr. Imran Khan’s party, at its zenith, won one parliamentary seat, and the Jamaat Islami has never done well in elections either, with the exception of the 2002 election, which is widely believed to have been rigged.

Pakistan’s military, under General Kiyani, and the ruling civilian coalition of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the centre, along with the Awami National Party (ANP) in the North West Frontier Province have taken collective ownership of the war.  The main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-N (N for Nawaz Sharif) has also backed the military operation.  Public opinion, as reflected by the elected political parties, is eager for the military to eradicate the militants, albeit with as little collateral damage as possible.

Is this a war against the Pashtuns?

It is sometimes incorrectly stated that the militant insurgency in Pakistan’s northwest (Pashtun dominated areas) is a symbol of Pashtun nationalism.  There is no truth to this.  As Professor Mohammed Taqi writes, “This is actually the cultural result of militarized madrassas and refugee camps where Pashtun children were forced to grow up during and after the Soviet-Afghan war in the eighties.  Many of these people have never really been true citizens of Pakistan or Afghanistan and nor have they ever really experienced Pashtun tribal society.”

It is quite amazing when the likes of Fareed Zakaria claim on CNN that the current military operation in Pakistan will spark ethnic fires between Pashtuns and Punjabis.  His statement represents a complete lack of understanding.  First, the military operation is being done at the behest of the ANP, which is the foremost representative of the Pashtun sentiment in Pakistan.  Like other innocent civilians in the NWFP, members of the ANP too have suffered beheadings, kidnappings and torture at the hands of the militants and are fully backing the military operation in their province so that the writ of the government can be established.

What Mr. Zakaria also does not understand is that the Paksitan Army has a strong Pashtun contingent.  Therefore, it is not as if a Punjabi army is waging a war on a Pashtun insurgency.  The insurgency is often led by Saudis and Libyans (as demonstrated by the recent capture of several foreign militants, whose passports manifest surprisingly lax control at Iranian checkpoints) while the Pakistan Army works in close collaboration with the Frontier Constabulary, consisting exclusively of Pashtuns.

It is relevant to quote from two opinion pieces recently written in Pakistan’s widely read English daily, The News (to which I also regularly contribute).  Noor Khan, an internally displaced person (IDP) from Swat, writes:

“Like most Pakhtuns, I say the only feasible solution at this stage is a complete military operation resulting in the confirmed elimination of the leadership of the Taliban in Swat and ensuring that they do not return after the area is cleared. If it is abandoned in the middle yet again, the much-reduced supporters of the government will be finished off, and Swat will become as hostile as Waziristan…. The people of Swat are living in a situation of constant fear. When our loved ones are alive, we fear for their safety, when they are taken away, there is anguish over whether they will come back alive, when they are murdered, there is terror that their bodies will be left for scavengers to feed on, when they are returned, whole or in parts, there is the torment of giving them half-Muslim, secret burials in unmarked graves and when they are buried, there is constant dread of their graves being desecrated and their corpses being subjected to dishonour and humiliation. Our children are taken away and turned into monsters; our men are forced to lay down their lives to murder innocents and our sisters are dragged out of their homes by disappointed suitors and flogged publicly for imaginary crimes.”

Zubair Torwali, an IDP from Bahrain (a scenic town in upper Swat) writes:

“On May 28 the Pakistan army entered Bahrain and was greeted by the local people who came forward with white flags and kept on chanting “Pak Fauj Zindabad’ [Long Live Pakistan Army]. This is unique in that something like this has happened for the first time in the whole of the troubled Swat valley. It was also unique as Bahrain had been under the control of the Taliban since the beginning of April. When the brave soldiers of the Pakistan army saw this scene they also became emotional and began chanting slogans in favour of the army and the people. The people were so happy at this spectacle of the state forces that they happily carried the ammunition, guns and other luggage of the soldiers to their positions…. The war against the militants can only be won by winning the hearts and minds of the local population — and this has been done in Bahrain.”

Do the people in Swat want to be governed by Sharia or Islamic law?

Like elsewhere in Pakistan, the people of Swat are religious and very defensive about Islam.  However, like elsewhere in Pakistan, when it comes time to vote, they vote for secular parties.  The 2008 election was no exception, when they voted overwhelmingly for ANP candidates.

Much is made about the fact that the people of Swat lived under Islamic law before they became a part of Pakistan and hence want to return to it.  While it is true that the people of Swat want justice and opportunity, running water and electricity, and a chance to send their children to school, whether they are provided these basics under Islamic or secular law is of little concern to them.  In fact, given voting patterns, it can be argued that they have more faith in acquiring these rights by voting for secular political parties.  After all, the Islamic parties make Sharia a key electoral promise, yet they perform poorly in elections.

It is important also to reflect upon the history of Swat.  Prior to the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, Swat was a princely state, ruled by a wali.  Although the Wali was inclined towards Sufism, he introduced a legal system that was a combination of Islamic and customary Pashtun laws.  Yet, not only did he build infrastructure and schools promoting both education and tourism, but also legally sanctioned bars and “dancing girls”.

At the time of Partition, the Wali of Swat opted to join Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s Pakistan voluntarily, but until 1969, Swat remained a semi-autonomous state with its own police and small army.  General Ayub Khan, who ruled Pakistan between 1958 and 1969, married his beautiful daughter, Nasim, to Captain Miangul Aurangzeb, who was the wali ahad (crown prince) of Swat, and was serving Ayub Khan as his aide-de-camp.  Although the marriage was a catalyst to merging semi-autonomous Swat into the rest of Pakistan, it wasn’t until Ayub Khan was asked to step down, that his successor, General Yahya, dethroned the Wali of Swat.

Subsequently, the ruling family merged into Pakistan quite readily, remaining active in national politics, but the people of Swat suffered from the inability of successive governments to fill the void in governance left by dethroning the Wali.

What is required therefore is to bring the legal system of the Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA), of which Swat is a part, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in line with that of the rest of Pakistan and to focus on enhancing a poor law enforcement structure.  And although the legal system in Pakistan in general could do with much reform, it must be uniform all over the country so as to avoid feelings of discrimination.

Romanticism with the past is not the answer.  The Wali of Swat may have administered the state passably, modernizing it in his dream to create a “Switzerland of Asia”, but there were also repressive practices.  Practices that would not go down well in a society aspiring for democratic norms and civil liberties.

For example, the family of Afzal Khan Lala, one of Pakistan’s most respected politicians who hail from Swat, was expelled from their native land by the former Wali because he considered their influence in Swat a challenge to his despotic rule.  It is interesting also to note how Afzal Khan Lala and Miangul Aurangzeb (both in their eighties) differ on the Swat operation.

In an interview with Azhar Masood in Foreign Policy Journal, the former wali ahad of Swat, Miangul Aurangzeb, dubiously sits on the fence, stating of the military operation:  “I neither approve it nor disapprove it.”

Afzal Khan Lala takes a clear position.  Having suffered the loss of two grandsons and been ambushed by the Taliban himself, he remains steadfast in his defiance, stating categorically:  “The Taliban movement is not an ideological movement. All the men of Sufi Muhammad and Maulana Fazlullah are loyal to Baitullah Mehsud. In fact, all the Taliban are loyal to Mullah Omar and most of them are criminals, looters, bandits, car  snatchers, absconders and  drug  runners. He is the centre of gravity both for Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.”

When asked if it was a class struggle, he responded:  “In class struggle between haves and have-nots, you do not become a criminal. You do not harm innocent people, snatch vehicles, dump arms and ammunition; you get popular through the force of ideology and not force. Taliban are terrorists and have no ideology.”

Is it possible to defeat the Taliban?

Yes, it is possible for the Pakistan Army to defeat the militants.  There are plenty of stories of the bravery and heroism of Pashtun fighters who are helped along by the rugged terrain in Pakistan’s northwest such that no invader could capture these freedom-loving people.  That may well be true, but it is only true for foreign invaders.  So Americans should beware.

But the Pakistan Army is no foreign invader.  They know the terrain as well as the militants.  The historic Ambela Pass, which could not be taken by successive foreign intruders and led to their defeat at the hands of the Pashtuns, was taken by the Pakistani security forces, assisted by the Frontier Constabulary, in a matter of days.  So, in the case of Pakistan’s own war, it is much more a matter of will than ability.

In the past, during Musharraf’s time, the fight was often not sincere and plagued with half-baked “peace deals” because Musharraf and his cronies believed that if the Islamic threat was eradicated altogether, it would be impossible for Musharraf to present himself as the bulwark against terrorism and continue to win the west’s support.  As a result, operations were conducted with duplicity and alliances were entered into with political forces that supported extremist ideology.

Presently, the army, under General Kiyani, appears sincere in its efforts and not distracted by competing concerns of maintaining a political hold on the country.  The politicians, for their part, are backing the army and consolidating public opinion behind their efforts.

The most difficult part is not the military operation, but rehabilitation of the displaced and rebuilding of the destroyed infrastructure.  In this, Pakistan must be helped.  Presently, of the 2.5 million IDPs, only 200,000 are living in camps set up by the government and various relief agencies.  The rest are staying with relatives and friends.  The Pakistani people are very generous even with excruciatingly limited resources.  The state and the international community must ensure that the burden taken on by these friends and relatives does not break their backs.

Aid must flow to Pakistan.  But, given the unfortunate corrupt state of government affairs, it must be tied to strict requirements of transparency and accountability.  The international community should also take a special interest in infrastructure projects for the affected areas where a lot has been demolished as a result of this “grim but necessary war”, as Cyril Almeida, one of Pakistan’s finest columnists, remarked.  Building an expensive “super embassy” in Pakistan, as reported by some media sources, will do little good and much harm.  Not only will it give credence to the few that claim “this is America’s war”, but it will also lead Pakistanis in general to conclude that America is simply motivated by imperialist designs.

Stabilizing and developing Pakistan is beneficial to the world at large.  The US also owes it to Pakistan to help it out of this quagmire, to make up for its abdication of responsibility in the aftermath of the Soviet defeat.  Hillary Clinton’s remarks in this context are gracious, honest and welcome, but they must be matched with appropriate action.

AYESHA IJAZ KHAN is a London-based lawyer and political commentator and can be contacted via her website





Ayesha Khan is a lawyer and author of “Rodeo Drive to Raja Bazaar“.  Twitter:  @ayeshaijazkhan  Website: