As the summer solstice draws near, it seems as if all the evil spirits are coming out to haunt the body politic of Pakistan. The country faces an escalation in hostilities on many fronts. And unlike in the past, when sweet deals and concessions could woo militants and protesters into silence, this time no amount of amulets will drive them away.
On the battlefield, the portents exist for a major new clash between the Army and the country’s homegrown militants. There are reports of forthcoming military action against fighters in South Waziristan, on top of the Army’s ongoing assault against the Taliban in Swat and Malakand. The fighting in Swat has displaced nearly 3 million people in just over a month — a number likely to swell as the Army moves into Waziristan. One might expect protests against the government and even perhaps the military to erupt if these internally displaced persons (IDPs) cannot swiftly and safely return home.
Pakistan indeed finds itself in quite a mess, and cleaning it up requires some review of how exactly the country became so disheveled. Before the assault on Swat began last month, the Army had been confined to its bases, apparently having rousted (but not routed) the Taliban. With the local and federal governments absent from the region in name and in services, the militants crept back and established a bloody regime. Violence escalated, and the Army was reticent to step in absent a long-term plan for controlling the area. So, the government agreed to a peace deal with Taliban-sympathizers. The truce was intended to subdue the militants, but instead, it gave them more time to organize.
Rather than melting away, the Taliban began snatching up territory closer and closer to the Pakistani heartland, and outrage among locals and the larger Pakistani population pushed the administration and the Army to react. Their tactic of choice was a full-fledged assault. The Army now has close to 150,000 troops in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Swat, and Malakand. In Swat alone, there are at least two full divisions from the eastern frontier and an additional four brigades cobbled together from divisions usually stationed near the Indian border. In addition, there is a full brigade of commandos in the Peochar Valley, and nine wings of the Frontier Corps. The total troop commitment in Swat is about 52,000. The military is taking losses daily. The militants, meanwhile, have taken the battle to the center of Pakistan, attacking offices of the Inter-Services Intelligence in Lahore in May and other softer targets, such as the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar last week.
Pakistan needs to regain territory and reestablish the writ of the provincial and federal governments in Swat and Malakand. The bad news is that taking territory, as the military is doing now, is not enough. There is no effective civil or judicial system in place to speedily see to the needs of the population, nor is there an effective local police force to protect civilians from Taliban reprisals. We are still waiting to see any semblance of a government plan for dealing with the IDPs’ return home. The Army is neither trained nor equipped for that task and cannot be expected to hold the areas that it clears. Locals told U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Pakistan, that the civilian leadership was still missing in action when he arrived to assess the situation in IDP camps. Little has really changed.
Now, the Army may be preparing for action in the Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan areas into South Waziristan, with the goal of flushing out or even eliminating Baitullah Mehsud and his fellow leaders of the Pakistani Taliban. In its effort, the Army may well resort to its old tactic of leveraging tribal rivalries. The target of their affections this time might be Mullah Nazir of the Ahmedzai Wazir tribe — traditional enemies of the Mehsuds. If so, it’s a dangerous strategy. If the situation devolves into tribal war, Pakistan risks losing the support of those Mehsuds that may not yet be fully aligned with Baitullah. And the Taliban leadership might simply melt into the countryside as the Army battles in populated areas.
Which brings us back to Pakistan’s 3 million displaced, only 200,000 of whom have been accommodated in official camps. The rest are fending for themselves and are anxious to return to their homes and orchards. Before they can do so, however, those areas must be safe and secure — and there remains only a narrow window for the government to prepare for rehabilitation and reconstruction before winter. With the exception of the United States, very few countries have come forward to assist in this effort. The Muslim world has been notably silent, as have the Europeans. A number of potential donors had already pledged more than $5 billion to help Pakistan’s economy at the Tokyo meeting this spring, but donor fatigue might be setting in now.
Aside from foreshadowing future turmoil, the Swat operation and the flood of IDPs indicate a lack of strategic planning on the part of Pakistan. A coherent strategy was nowhere to be found in both cases, nor was there any meeting of the minds between civilian and military thinkers and between federal and local officials on how to tackle the militants.
Another seemingly obvious but important lesson is that military attacks address only the symptoms of discontent, while doing little to tackle the root causes of militancy. No steps have been taken by the government as yet to integrate FATA into Pakistan’s economy and polity, to regularize the region’s legal system, or to allow Pakistan’s political parties to operate inside FATA’s boundaries. Nor have any plans been made to employ FATA’s bulging youth population, an estimated 300,000 potential Taliban recruits. The government could rapidly create employment by launching heavy infrastructure projects such as east-west roads linking FATA to Pakistan, construction of embankments, small dams, and tube wells.
Washington is doing its best to provide Pakistan the wherewithal to tackle these issues. Now it’s time for Pakistan to step up and formulate its implementation plans, before it loses the trust of its people and the summer boils over into political chaos.
Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council. This essay was previously published at ForeignPolicy.com.