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Story Publication logo May 30, 2009

Letter From Mardan: A War of Unintended Consequences


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River Swat, Kalam. Image from Farooq Nasir's Flickr photostream.

One day this month, Faridun Karimdad, a 36-year-old farm worker, was lying on a cot in a gloomy hospital ward in Mardan, a town in Pakistan's northwest. He inched onto his right side to show me the splatter of dried blood above his left hip. The day before, as Karimdad and his family prepared to flee the village of Khot in the Swat Valley, a mortar exploded outside his home, shattering his hip and killing his son and two daughters. He could live with his loss, he told me, if he believed the Pakistani military's offensive would bring peace -- if only the brief peace his village enjoyed after the Pakistani government negotiated a cease-fire with Taliban fighters last February.

Karimdad, like many of the refugees fleeing the fighting in Swat, blames both sides for violating the terms of the deal. The government had agreed to recognize sharia, Islamic law, in the region if the militants agreed to lay down their arms. But peace did not hold for long. The Taliban continued pushing into mountains toward the capital, Islamabad, and claimed territory in the neighboring district of Buner.

Then, in early May, facing harsh criticism from the United States for ceding territory to the militants, the government launched a heavy-handed military offensive against the Taliban in Swat -- a mission that Karimdad, like many in his situation, believes is destined to fail. The Pakistani military claims to have killed more than 1,200 Taliban fighters and is now waging street battles and searching houses for militants in Swat's main town of Mingora.

Although the ongoing offensive suggests that Pakistan may finally be committed to confronting the threat of militancy within its borders, its reliance on overwhelming, and often indiscriminate, firepower suggests that the military's longtime focus on a conventional war against India has left it unequipped to launch a sophisticated counterinsurgency with the tactics necessary to maintain public confidence in the campaign. Karimdad told me that he is doubtful the military will ever gain a decisive victory. "There will be another compromise," he said. "Then there will be another dispute. Then they'll both start killing people again."

Under international pressure, the army appears to have rushed into the conflict unprepared for the consequences, which, as the situation worsens, threatens to undermine support for the already fragile administration of President Asif Ali Zardari. Pakistani leaders are caught between the need to combat militancy inside the country -- proving their resolve to a U.S. administration that has promised not to give Islamabad a "blank check" -- and the risk of a public backlash. The human cost has already been high. Some 1.5 million people have left their homes in recent weeks, bringing the total displaced by fighting to more than two million and overwhelming Pakistani officials with the country's largest internal migration since its partition from India in 1947.

The government seems to have done little to prepare for such a crisis, creating a growing danger of instability from an operation that was supposed to achieve the exact opposite. Although the scale of the crisis may have been hard to predict, the army's lack of planning for the war's humanitarian implications was destined to alienate many of those whom the Pakistani government most needs to convince it can protect.

Rifaat Hussain, a professor of defense and strategic studies at Quaid-i-Azam University, in Islamabad, told me that "90 percent of the army's resources are dedicated fully to making the military operations a success. But even if they are able to defeat the militants in the Swat area, if you have 10,000 or 20,000 disgruntled youth coming out of these refugee camps and then picking up arms or joining hands with those who have been defeated, that can create another nightmare situation for Pakistan." As Hussain put it, the government's inattention to the civilian fallout has left many in Swat without the feeling that "they have a dog in this fight."

Until several years ago, the Swat Valley was known as a picturesque mountain destination for tourists, yet many of its residents are poor laborers traditionally underserved by the government. Like Karimdad, a large number of them welcomed the return of Islamic law -- which had been in place there until 1969 -- as a swift and effective alternative to the country's onerous bureaucracy.

But the Taliban's rough and often brutal imposition of sharia alienated many residents of Swat. "These people [the Taliban] are not Muslims," said an elderly man with a white beard in a camp near the local hospital in Mardan. He told me about a recent killing of a local imam who spoke out against the militants for laying landmines and stockpiling weapons in Mingora, a Taliban stronghold. But as he finished, his son, a 35-year-old surgeon's assistant, told me that the military has not treated civilians in the area much better. "They are shelling blindly," he said. "There is no target." The family did not have time to leave before the military began bombing raids and was trapped for days before authorities lifted the curfew so they could escape.

As the central government in Islamabad reveals itself to be increasingly unable to care for those affected by the military's offensive, independent groups with ties to Islamist organizations such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa -- which was banned for its suspected involvement in last November's terror attacks in Mumbai -- have stepped into the vacuum. They have a growing presence outside the camps for providing food and medical care. Supplying relief aid and services is a quick way to forge allegiances with those displaced by the fighting, and that is a war Zardari's government is losing.

"There is no administration here," said Mehboob Khan, a student at the University of Peshawar and one of a hundred students who have assumed administrative control over a large section of the Mardan camp, gathering and distributing donations of food, water, clothes, and bedsheets for refugees. "We could manage this whole camp better than the authorities," he said. That morning, he told me, he had watched trucks loaded with supplies roll into the camp. A member of Pakistan's parliament spoke to the press outside the camp's entrance before disappearing with the trucks and supplies as soon as the cameras were turned off. "They conveyed the message that they are trying to bring relief to the people," he said. "But they didn't give anything."

Meanwhile, rumor and conspiracy theories are quickly taking hold. Many refugees I talked to were convinced that the Pakistani army was letting in shipments of arms and ammunition to the militants and were deliberately missing their targets as part of a war of show.

Two days later, I visited an unofficial refugee camp that had been set up on a parcel of private land, tucked around the corner from a modest neighborhood in Islamabad. Since the February cease-fire, refugees had been slowly trickling in from Swat. A few days earlier, there had been only 100 or so in the tents erected on a hill above a polluted stream. On the day I visited, there were more than 400. A doctor who was making rounds at the camp told me that people were suffering from water-borne illnesses and depression. "People have been here for two months, and still they have nothing," one refugee told me, pointing to the dusty, sun-baked slope beneath his feet. "There is no life here."

The refugee crisis is bolstering claims that the government is unable to protect its citizens, especially in light of the U.S. drone attacks in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan that have killed a large number of civilians along with militants. Khalid Rahman, the director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad, told me that the war could plunge support for Zardari to dangerously low levels. For the moment, his approval rating is 19 percent, lower than that of Pervez Musharraf when he was pushed from office in August 2008. "They can take Swat militarily," Rahman said. "But the issue is whether they can sustain the credibility of the people and isolate the extremists."

Even if the army is able to win the military battle, it will face a substantial challenge in resettling refugees. Zardari has made a plea to the international community for $1 billion to care for refugees. But the tab for relief and post-conflict reconstruction could likely total more than $3 billion, according to Hussain. "Without that kind of support for this area you will have a lot of resentment and a lot of anger among these people." So far, Hussain told me, the government's efforts have been too little, too late. "The whole idea is to make the military operation a success," he said. "The rest can come later."

This story was featured on Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish.


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