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Back to square one

PAKISTAN’S success against militants can be judged from the result of its operations in Swat that began on May 12, 2009 when the military was ordered to restore the writ of the state.

Subsequently, the region was stabilised under the military’s management, permitting the return of more than 500,000 displaced residents.

After the initial ‘clear’ phase of the operation, the military and the police engaged in the attempt to ‘hold’ the valley in a changing security environment. After the initial phase when supremacy over the Taliban cadres was obtained, there are now signs that the Taliban have revived and are challenging the state once again.

The federal and provincial government have found the ‘build’ phase to be challenging. Apparently, the cycle of violence is set to repeat itself in Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in an uncongenial international situation.

External events are reducing Pakistan’s security and fiscal space. Western Europe and the US are fearful of losing their Middle Eastern security framework that they had been building since the Second World War. In the short term, it is likely that the West will increase pressure on Pakistan. More worrying is the revival of anti-Muslim antagonism in the West including the US that will not help matters either.

Coupled with financial constraints that have affected western economies, it is only a matter of time before assistance to Pakistan is reduced. Pakistan’s large population and increasing unemployment will thus create more sympathy for militants.

In many ways it is likely that the demographic and development pressure that exists in Fata and in Swat and other areas of the province will increase insecurity in these and other areas.

An examination of the factors in Swat shows a close link between poverty and militancy. Poverty in Swat is attributable mainly to lack of assets and skills. The district development indicators showed a decline when Swat dropped in its ranking from 15th to 17th position out of 24 Khyber Pakhtunkhwa districts.

Secondly, Swat has a population growth of 2.6 per cent per annum and is perched on a demographic precipice like the rest of the country. In Pakistan, there were 51 million employable youth in 2006. This number is projected to increase to 90 million in 2017. It is unlikely that Pakistan will be able to meet this challenge. Swat like other places will thus be confronted with a risky situation.

Also, with failing public finances the education system has almost collapsed, the poor are sending their offspring to madressahs in ever-increasing numbers due to unemployment and rising inflation. After graduating from such schools these youth look for an opportunity to make a living so that they can raise families. Unfortunately for them, such opportunities are few, except when the militants offer them jobs for fighting the state in the name of religion; an extremely volatile combination where the needs of this world and the hereafter are catered for!

In 2001, when the conflict between Al Qaeda and the US began in earnest, the Pakistani jihadi organisations began targeting the state in well-planned moves. Swat was chosen as one of the core areas by them for this purpose. It had the right conditions and one of them was the presence of a large youth pool.

The other regions chosen with a similar profile were Waziristan and Bajaur. The analysis of conflict in Swat showed that 75 per cent of households thought that unemployment forced the youth to join the militants.

Researchers have found a similar nexus between income inequality and militancy since fighting permits the have-nots to become powerful and rich. A case in point is the almost overnight increase in the wealth of some jihadi leaders like Nek Muhammad and Baitullah Mehsud from Waziristan, Faqir Muhammad from Bajaur and Mullah Fazlullah from Swat.

In the last couple of weeks, the militants have increased their attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after a lapse of many months thus signifying that the insurgency is not over yet. This episodic up and down in fighting confirms a pattern of contest experienced by other countries.

In the first phase the militants gain space. The security agencies are brought to a defensive position owing to pre-emptive well-planned assaults. Slowly, the militants are either killed or their cells destroyed by the state. The militants disperse, regroup and launch another assault. This cycle is of a duration of seven to eight months. However, at the start of the new cycle the militants become better due to what experts call ‘tactical Darwinism’. According to this, when the military fights a jihadi network the weak cells and individuals are eliminated. Thus only the fittest survive for the next phase. It makes the militants more lethal over time.

According to another report, Al Qaeda has now directly taken command for the Swat front. Mullah Fazlullah, the chief of the TTP in Swat, has been summoned to North Waziristan so there is better coordination amongst the different groups. The chief of these operations is one Ibn-i-Amin who has been placed in Mohmand near Malakand to direct operations in Mohmand, Bajaur and the Swat Valley.

It has also been reported that new recruits have been sent to Tirah in Khyber Agency for training. It is expected that these cadres will undertake terrorist strikes in the urban areas — this has yet to be proved but the situation as it stands indicates that it is probably true.

It is evident that we are on the cusp of a new wave of militant violence that will make conditions for Pakistan more difficult.

Events in Middle East and the hardening of attitudes against the Muslim migrant populations in the West will only gladden Al Qaeda that will exploit the events and reignite another round of bloodletting.

The writer is chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research in Peshawar.

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