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Time To Rethink Swat

Residents of Swat Valley are barely hanging on.
Residents of Swat Valley are barely hanging on.
The cradle of the Gandhara civilization, Pakistan’s Swat Valley, is a place of idyllic vistas with a rich history of scholarship and multiculturalism. It is also, unfortunately, a place recently ravaged by forces both natural and human.

Pakistani military operations against the Taliban in May 2009 displaced an estimated 1.8 million people in Swat. Adding to the pain, what little infrastructure remained -- mainly small plots for growing fruits and vegetables -- was wiped out by this year’s massive flooding.

Ironically, the violence that has afflicted Swat is a result of Talibanization groomed in large part by the willful negligence of Pakistani authorities. This negligence allowed -- and, in many ways encouraged -- the Taliban's presence, which, in turn, gave the Pakistani military all the reasons it needed to establish itself in the valley. This vicious, cynical cycle turned the paradise of the Yousafzai Pashtuns into a virtual hell.

Despite tall claims by Pakistan’s civilian and military establishment, people’s lives remain in disarray, as affected families have yet to get any reasonable technical or financial assistance to rebuild their homes and lives.

A valley, where once tourists from all over the world forgot the pains of their lives, has been transformed into a painful experience for its residents.

Recently, Swatis were dealt more shocking news: an anouncement by the Pakistani military that it planned to establish a huge military base in Swat. The construction of this military complex will surely claim what little remains of the fertile agricultural land in Kanju, Matta, and Mingora areas with local farmers receiving next to nothing in return.

It’s worth noting that, over the past three years, the presence of more than 25,000 members of Pakistan's security forces in Swat failed to prevent the Taliban from bombing over 400 schools, hundreds of health facilities, and police check points.

The Taliban’s depressingly successful campaign against education closed the doors of enlightenment on thousands of students -- leading a good many of them to join Taliban training camps. Culturally, the music and songs Swatis enjoyed were replaced by Taliban jihad chants and the cracks of the guns of Pakistan’s security forces.

Though the government claims to have routed militants -- killing and arresting scores -- the 7th largest military in the world and its affiliate security agencies have yet to locate and arrest the main antagonist, Drama Fazlullah. Adding to this humiliation of the rule of law, the government has yet to present any of those arrested militants before a court of law.

Apart from shallow statements from Pakistan’s government then and now, not a single concrete step has been taken to put Swat back on track. For ordinary citizens of Swat, all the “powers” involved -- the Taliban, the military, the civilian the government -- are to blame. The Taliban wants to impose their extremist religious agenda; the military wants American money and military hardware to promote its strategic interests in the region; and the civilian government is devoid of vision and political will to protect its people.

One local political leader, who feared retribution by both the Taliban and security forces, told me, “It is as if we are living in a state of occupation,” with an economy that continues to dwindle.

A 2009 survey conducted by the Save The Children Foundation recorded a 73 percent decline in people’s income as a result of the Fazlullah-led lawlessness and the subsequent military operation in Swat. Over the past three years, insecurity had forced traders to stay away, or, when they did come, orchard produce from Swat farmers was purchased at throw-away prices. Still, it was something. Now, post-flood Swat Valley will take years, if not decades, to be restored.

This restoration will, it seems, be undertaken with little or no help from either governmental or non-governmental organizations. The provincial government complains of lack of funds, and the federal government has yet to come with a development plan that people can put faith in. Many Swatis are asking, “Who is accountable for the aid money collected in our names from the international community?” The question has yet to be met with an answer.

Swat is not a place like Waziristan and Bajaur -- it is a bastion of peace and enlightenment. Throughout centuries, it has been one of the most beautiful places on the face of earth, a melting pot of civilizations that has served as the back-bone of the Pashtun economy. Now, after ill-devised and cruel policies have destroyed its peace and hindered its progress, it needs the care, support, and love it deserves.

- Daud Khattak, Radio Mashaal