Beating Back the Taliban

My column for HardNews, written May 24, 2009

PERSONAL POLITICAL

Beena Sarwar

“Is the threat of Talibanisation real or has it been hyped up by the media?” asked an Australian journalist friend calling a week before the Pakistan army began its belated operation against the militants in Swat region. With no independent reporting from the area, there’s only the army’s word about the situation. If rag-tag Taliban barely 4,000 strong are being trounced it is hardly surprising – they face the world’s fifth largest standing army.

A quarter have reportedly been killed in the operation. Many are deserting, shaving off their beards and melting back into the local population. Not all are hard core militants. Some joined the Taliban for money, were forced, or driven to avenge the casualties caused by American drone attacks. However, some still cause fear according to reports coming from refugee camps that house an estimated 20 per cent of the over two million persons internally displaced (IDPs in development jargon) since the fighting began. The rest are living with friends, family or strangers, some of whom house up to 4,000 people on their lands.

For the first time since 1971, a ‘war narrative’ is being developed by the media, government, army and politicians (many of whom until recently justified the Taliban’s actions; during Kargil, they denied the Pakistan army’s involvement). Now there are images ‘war hero funerals’ of army ‘shaheeds’ (martyrs) – not all from Pakistan’s dominant religion (Muslim) or ethnic group (Punjabi).

Even before the army action, wild bearded turbaned hordes were unlikely to take over Pakistan. This is not Afghanistan where decades of war destroyed all the systems and institutions. Nor is it Iran, where a huge urban-rural divide helped the mullahs to take over. Even conservative Pakistanis are uncomfortable with the Taliban’s brand of Islam – public beheadings, corpse mutilations and floggings. There is wide adherence to Sufi values and anger at the Taliban’s attacks on sufi shrines.

Pakistan has a 5,50,000 strong standing army (struggling to re-orient itself against its former allies the jihadis, countering its historic conditioning against India), a bureaucracy geared to maintaining the status quo, and an elected Parliament. Regular interruptions to the political process have made them somewhat dysfunctional but the only cure is to continue the process, break the pattern according to which no elected government in Pakistan has completed its tenure (not counting the one formed after the 2002 elections that took place during military rule without the participation of the political leadership).

I started writing this while my father was hospitalised  in the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT), a clean and well-equipped facility that treats rich and poor free of charge in this bustling megapolis of over 16 million. I described to my Australian friend the street scene I saw. The three-storey sandstone building is surrounded by decrepit British era and modern apartment blocks. Some ancient neem trees raise leafy green heads, sanctuaries for noisy crows in this concrete jungle. In the evenings, families including women and children, and groups of young men, bring roadside eateries to life.

For all the efforts homogenise Pakistani society, it remains diverse. That afternoon, a couple walked past the pushcart fruit, juice vendors and parked motorcycles, the woman in a brown burqa, the man in conventional shalwar kameez. Two young girls in colourful shalwar kameez, dupattas draped casually over their shoulders, walked the opposite direction. Another woman went alone, a black chaddar over her blue shalwar kurta. Several men lounged on the footpath, some squatting on their haunches, smoking, chatting, drinking tea.

Elsewhere, air-conditioned malls are full of young girls and women, some with girlfriends or dates, others with families or alone. Their attire ranges from burqas and headscarves over shalwar kurtas, to short shirts and jeans, to  high-slit tunics over calf-length trousers (‘capris’). Many are window shoppers escaping oppressive heat compounded by power breakdowns. Not all can afford the designer labels on display, but exposure to different lifestyles has changed old aspirations (not necessarily in a positive way).

Meanwhile, whether or not the Taliban are beaten back, a greater threat emanates from state systems that encourage conservative thinking — discriminatory laws against religious minorities and women, the encouragement of violence against religious minorities and women, vigilante justice, and anti-India, pro-jehadi values

http://tinyurl.com/pp-taliban

Doc’s blog; Madrassas vs Pvt schools; Hoodbhoy on Pk; Cost of war and more

Condolences: Lourdes Joseph, longtime activist and office secretary of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) passed away today in Dubai of a heart attack. Funeral on June 10, 4 pm, at St Anthony’s Church in Karachi; burial at ‘gora qabristan’ 5 pm.

1. New blog – www.drsarwar.wordpress.com – with photos and remembrances, including by I.A. Rehman, Salima Hashmi, Dr Badar Siddiqui, S.M. Naseem, Ali Jafari, Mohsin Tejani and others

2. The Madrasa Myth op-ed co-authored by Tahir Andrabi, Jishnu Das, C. Christine Fair, and Asim Ijaz Khwaja, published June 3, 2009 –  http://www.foreignpolicy.com

Extract: `Rather than focusing on madrasas and public schools, the donor community should take note of a striking change in the Pakistani educational landscape: the emergence of mainstream and affordable private schools.’

Note from Tahir Andrabi (Professor of Economics, Pomona College, Claremont, CA):
“Trying to inject some sense in the mainstream of the Washington policy debate on Pakistan. Would like for once to having facts as a basis for conversation on Pakistan”. (The other Pakistani co-author Asim Ijaz Khwaja teaches at Harvard Kennedy School). http://tinyurl.com/lxlbrs

3. `Whither Pakistan? A five-year forecast’ by Pervez Hoodbhoy in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 3 June 2009. Article Highlights
• U.S. government officials and media outlets have exaggerated how close Pakistan is to collapse.
• That said, the speed of Pakistan’s societal decline has surprised many inside in the country who have long warned of the effects of religious extremism.
• The first step toward calming the situation–Pakistan’s political leadership and army must squarely face the extremist threat, something they’ve finally begun to do.
http://tinyurl.com/Pk-PH-5yr

4. The Women of Swat and `Mullah Radio’, Tuesday, 02 June 2009,
From a group of NWFP women, report published in http://khyberwatch.com
Extract: “Islam started as soon as we fled from Malakand. People outside Swat think we had Islam and Shariat. There is no Islam in Swat. The Taliban have finished it.’ -woman from Mingawera, Swat, in a Sawabai camp
Full report at – http://tinyurl.com/lrnvo4

5. HRCP report on the situation of the internally displaced, plus the Commission’s conclusions and recommendations at:  http://hrcpblog.wordpress.com
`A tragedy of errors and Cover-ups – The IDPs and outcome of military actions in FATA and Malakand Division’
The cost of the insurgency in the Malakand Division has been increased manifold by the shortsightedness and indecisiveness of the non-representative institutions and their policy of appeasing the militants and cohorting with them. While the ongoing military operation had become unavoidable, it was not adopted as a measure of the last resort. Further, the plight of the internally displaced people has been aggravated by lack of planning and coordination by the agencies concerned, and the methods of evacuation of towns/villages and the arrangements for the stranded people have left much to be desired….

Based on reports by HRCP activists in Malakand Division and other parts of NWFP/Pakhtunkhwa, visits to camps by its activists and senior board members, and talks with many displaced people and several Nazims and public figures
Direct link to report – http://tinyurl.com/mpy7et

6. From Isa Daudpota: Bill Moyers sits down with award-winning investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill to examine the human and financial costs of America’s wars.
http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/06052009/watch.html
Plus a new website he suggests checking out: www.whowhatwhy.com

The humanitarian crisis of Swat’s Internally Displaced People – Omar Foundation

Further to my earlier note on how to help those forced to become refugees in their own land – the largest internal displacement ever in Pakistan as the army finally takes action against the Taliban – see appeal below sent by a journalist friend in Karachi. Rashida Dohad, also an old friend, works with OAK Foundation – http://www.oakdf.org.pk (‘Donate’ link  – http://www.oakdf.org.pk/links/donate.htm)
Also see IDP Wiki page at http://sarelief.com
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: sahar <sahar@panossouthasia.org>
Date: Mon, May 18, 2009 at 10:56 PM
Subject: The humanitarian crisis of the Internally Displaced People of Swat – please support Omar Foundation

Dear Friends and Family,

This evening I attended a briefing by Ali Asghar Khan, Chairman of the Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation, at the Sindh Club. Ali had been invited by Karachi’s concerned citizens – concerned about the humanitarian crisis unfolding rapidly in the wake of the war to crush the Taliban uprising in Swat – to talk about what was happening, and how Karachi-ites could help.

Omar Foundation’s solid credentials as an organization working to create space for the poor to engage in the democratic process, were established in the wake of the 2005 earthquake, when alongside their systematic relief efforts, they organized earthquake survivors to articulate their needs and express them in the policy arena, in a bid to make earthquake rehabilitation policy responsive to people’s needs and priorities.

While Omar Foundation’s base is in Hazara, their experience of organizing the community – through village committees – to take responsibility of the task of distribution of relief supplies to people who most needed them – qualifies them to deliver similar services for the efficient distribution of relief supplies to the hundreds of thousands of families fleeing Swat to peaceful parts of NWFP.

This is a humanitarian crisis of immense magnitude, as confirmed by the UN. And the most alarming aspect, as Ali pointed out earlier this evening, is that the media is portraying just the tip of the iceberg. “Eight-five (85) percent of the displaced population is not in the camps,” revealed Ali. They are being hosted in people’s homes, as many as 15 to a small room. Schools are overflowing with between 200 to 1500 people, without adequate – often non-existent – facilities for housing these families.

Omar Foundation’s ‘adopt-a-school’ programme will seek to establish committees among the people living in schools to undertake the task of management, establishing services and distribution of relief goods. “All distribution will be through these committees, that will be made up of the people themselves,” Ali said.

Speaking on the occasion, Ishaq, who fled Swat some months ago after his name was announced on the Taliban radio channel with a death warrant, and will be working with Omar Foundation to organize the displaced populations, said: “Our people are worse-off than farm animals.” He added that the 100-year-old infrastructure of Swat had been destroyed. “We were against the provincial government’s deal with the Taliban,” he said. But he and others, who have fled the area with their families in the wake of the army operation, are now afraid to speak out against the provincial government, the army, or the Taliban. Ali explained that there is a palpable sense of insecurity among the people, which he sensed when he recently toured the schools in Mardan where the IDPs are languishing.

It is this insecurity that needs to be dealt with, after the immediate need of providing food, healthcare, sanitation, and education facilities to the IDPs has been addressed. “Our nation may not get this chance again. We have to be there for them [the IDPs],” said Ali. He added that model systems of justice, healthcare, education and other basic needs have to be created to ensure that the vacuum being currently created through the operation, will be filled and not allow the Taliban to re-group and re-surface. Ali said the common refrain is, “The Taliban are like water.” You flush them from one area, and they will simply flow to another. It is this feeling of insecurity that needs to be addressed if peace and the IDPs are to return to Swat.

For now, the need of the hour is to provide immediate relief for the disease and despair that is spreading rapidly. People need nutritious food, water for drinking and washing, toilets, bedding, utensils, medicines and medical services, clothing, sanitary goods, education, and sanitation.

Omar Foundation has taken on the responsibility of organizing these facilities and services for three schools in one of the poorest Union Councils in Mardan (where people who are hosting these families are so poor, that they can barely afford the hospitality now, let alone on a long term basis).

“Some schools need toilets, others need kitchens, a sewage system, fans,” explained Ali.

Please support the Omar Foundation’s efforts to provide immediate relief and more sustained basic services to the people of Swat who need our support. They have sacrificed their homes so that the rest of Pakistan may live without fear of the Taliban.

Donations can be sent to:
Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation
Current Account # 0030445261000455
MCB Bank (1028)
Super Market, Islamabad
Pakistan
SWIFT Code MUCBPKKAMCC

Tax exemption # 6043/RTO/ATD/2008-09 dated 12 May 2009

Please email details including name, address and amount for acknowledgment to info@oakdf,org.pk

Tel +92 512611092 – 4
Mob +92 300 8565279

PLEASE CIRCULATE THIS WIDELY. THIS ISN’T A MATTER OF DAYS OR WEEKS. IT COULD TAKE MONTHS, EVEN YEARS. DONATE GENEROUSLY AND CONSISTENTLY.

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