Pakistan Anti-Taliban War Eases, Opens Window for Reform

Pakistan Anti-Taliban War Eases, Opens Window for Reform
# 04 March 2010 03:46 (UTC +04:00)
Baku – APA. At his desk inside Bala Hissar, an ancient brick fortress that looms above the rooftops of Peshawar, General Tariq Khan heard an unusual sound drifting up, APA reports quoting web-page. "It was music," says the general. "And I hadn’t heard it in a long, long time."
That’s because this Pakistani frontier city, despite its large army garrison dating back to the British colonial days, had been in the grips of the Taliban’s reign of fear. Nearly twice a week, they would send suicide bombers - often God-struck kids in their early teens - down from training camps in the mountains to blow themselves up at a busy crossroads or police station. They kidnapped rich businessmen, doctors and lawyers for ransom. And they silenced the music, shutting shops and banning songs at rowdy Pashtun tribal weddings, calling them "un-Islamic."
So when General Khan heard the tinny, rat-tat-tat music welling up from the crowded lanes of the bazaar, he saw it as a sign that normality was returning to Peshawar. "We killed a lot of them," he says, referring to the militants known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) or the Pakistani Taliban who are at war with Islamabad while their Afghan brethren are hiding in these same saw-blade mountains to launch attacks on NATO forces across the border. The bombings are less frequent and the kidnappings, he says, have gone "from 50 a day to zero." Bringing music back to Peshawar is one thing; extending the Pakistani government’s writ into the forbidding ranges outside the capital - where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have taken root among outlaws and drug and gun smugglers - is of a different order of magnitude. "The measure of our success isn’t killing the enemy. It’s opening markets, schools and courts," Khan says.
The Pakistani army has won itself some ground, scattering Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan and Swat, but the real challenge lies ahead: how to rebuild a fiercely independent tribal society that has been shredding apart since the 1980s, when the Soviet war in Afghanistan brought in legions of revolutionary preachers and militants - armed with guns, money and the austere Salafist doctrine of Islam - who never departed.
It isn’t easy. Consider this scene: at a dusty army camp in Dera Ismael Khan a few weeks back, Pakistan’s army commander Ashfaq Parvez Kayani summoned elders, or maliks, from the Mehsud tribe who had been hiding in Karachi, Peshawar and Islamabad from Taliban assassins. Eyewitnesses recount that the elders were so scared of being spied on by the Taliban that they rolled up to the army chief’s office with the car windows plastered over with newspapers so their faces couldn’t be seen.
And with good reason. General Khan reckons that the Pakistani Taliban have killed over 500 tribal elders since 9/11 for supposedly collaborating with Islamabad and Washington. Even after assurances from the army chief, the Mehsud elders are still afraid to venture back to their lands. "The jihad has eliminated the old tribal system of maliks," says General Khan. "Now any crook with a cell phone can call up a gang of his militant friends for any kind of mischief, and everyone is too afraid to stop them." His former colleague, Brigadier Mahmoud Shah, formerly in charge of security for the Northwest Frontier Province, concurs. "It’s a twilight zone up there," he says, even in the areas recently cleared of militants.
Many tribal maliks were an easy mark for the militants; many of them were rotten, using government funds allotted for schools, clinics and irrigation canals to line the pockets of their own baggy shalwar kameez trousers. Their sole connection to Islamabad was through the all-powerful and often corrupt political agent, a relic from the British colonial times, who decided which tribal elder should be favored or punished.
Pakistani military officers, politicians and diplomats say that Islamabad has a short window of opportunity to improve the lives of the frontier tribesmen. Otherwise, they will turn angrily against Islamabad and wave in the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters who are now scattered in the mountains. "We need to bring in reforms swiftly," says Shah.
Washington agrees with this urgency. In 2007, the Bush Administration approved $750 million to be spent in the Northwest Frontier Province over the next five years to catapult the poor, lawless region into the 21st century, creating schools and jobs and repairing the battered civil society. But because of fears that there were no safeguards to keep corrupt officials from siphoning off the funds, and because much of the region has been off-limits to aid workers due to militancy, only a tenth of that amount has been spent. Nor can aid wait: the U.N. reckons that over 1.63 million people fled when bullets started flying between the Pakistani Taliban and the army. Their lives need to be rebuilt before they too start blaming Islamabad, and not the militants, for their misery.
Quietly, U.S. diplomats, aid workers and military trainers have been working in the frontier tribal areas with the army and whatever brave tribal maliks they can find. The idea, say Pakistani military officials, is to identify fast projects - small dams or marble quarries, for example - and get them built and working under the protection of those tribes that will benefit directly. Only this way, say officials, can the tribes turn away from the militant-run enterprises - banditry and running guns and drugs - that earn them money.
In a controversial move, the army is also giving weapons and training to "friendly" tribes so they can keep militants out of their territories. The drawback: some critics argue that if a tribe again becomes disillusioned with Islamabad - and it wouldn’t be the first time - these militias will simply swell the ranks of the Pakistani Taliban, taking their new guns with them.
The best solution, says Samina Ahmed, Pakistan director for the International Crisis Group, a global policy-research center, is to ring in political and social reforms that will rid this territory of its antique system from British colonial rule and draw it into mainstream Pakistani life. For now, bringing back the music in the bazaars may not be enough, but it’s a start.
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