Only a month after a full blown offensive began against the Taliban in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and already the situation on the ground is being referred to as the worst humanitarian crisis in the country’s recent history, as well as one of the world’s largest displacement crises. Within a month, almost 2 million people have had to abandon their homes. They join the 550,000 that fled earlier fighting, thus bringing the total to 2.4 million people who have been forced to flee the region.
Many observers believe the current battle, and the massive displacement it has brought about, could have been prevented had the Pakistani army been more resolute in dealing with the Taliban in the last couple of years. Some analysts look back even further, at the failure of NATO forces to fully crush the Taliban while still in Afghanistan and the Bush administration’s error in shifting its focus to Iraq. Although all three points are valid, they focus primarily on the strengths and, in this case, weaknesses of the military component in eliminating the Taliban. Nevertheless, whilst belligerence clearly plays a central role in the militants’ strategy, their firm grip on Pakistan’s Swat valley is a sign that factors other than force have permitted them to gain control of a region inhabited by over 1.3 million people. Their conquest, it seems, is the result of poor governance, the lack of proper socio-economic policies and the Taliban’s ability to exploit the fears and frustrations of the region’s population.
Following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, the uprooted Taliban inched their way towards the Pakistani border where they were able to seek refuge in areas of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas, and Waziristan. It is no surprise the Taliban would gain control by the use of force, but their presence in the Swat valley was not made possible by coercion alone. One look as some of the problems that plague Pakistan today shows the need for overdue changes and reforms, which explains just how easily the Taliban propaganda was able to find the right niche to exploit these frustration
For starters, since independence in 1947, no effort has been made to draft land reforms that would provide opportunities for advancement among the rural poor. As it stands, land ownership is in the hands of the upper classes and there is little room for progress among the subservient workforce. The Taliban’s increasing presence in the Swat valley – part of NWFP – can be traced back to 2004, when the local leader of the Taliban, Mullah Fazalullah, set up a radio station that broadcasted easy solutions to the region’s grievances. He appealed to the masses of disenfranchised and landless peasants by using simple examples – that included cows, goats and milk – to spell out the persisting inequalities between the peasants and the wealthy landowners. Within two years, his broadcast messages helped Mr. Fazalullah create peasant militias, armed by the Taliban, which went on to overthrow some of the most powerful landlords in the area.
The Taliban’s campaign aimed to exploit class differences and frustrations of the locals, and it did exactly that. Local politicians were threatened and blacklisted, over 40 landlords were intimidated into abandoning their properties and their lands were seized by the radicals and their local militias. However cruel and inhumane their tactics, the Taliban managed to gain acceptance by disparaging the ineffective and corrupt Pakistani government and promising their own economic and land redistribution; thus, addressing some of the disillusioned public’s main concerns. They vowed to implement strict Islamic law to replace the corrupt and lethargic justice system and even received President Zardari’s consent in exchange for a ceasefire. In other words, despite confrontations with the Pakistani army over the last couple of years, by February 2009 the Taliban became an uncomfortably legitimate force in Swat valley. Given the recent outbreak violence, this arrangement clearly did not last more than a couple of months. The Taliban did not keep their end of the bargain and instead continued fighting. On top of that, mounting US pressure on Pakistan to steer clear of making deals with the extremists jolted the army into the current offensive.
In addition to the lack of reforms on land, Pakistan has also procrastinated over the need to reform its law enforcement sector, another source of frustration and a likely cause of the current armed conflict. The police force and law enforcement in general are widely seen as ill-equipped, poorly trained, deeply politicised, and corrupt. This sector has not received the attention it deserves as most funding aimed at security has usually benefited the military. The Bush administration, for one, has bestowed Pakistan with over $10 billion towards military needs, such as tanks, fighter aircrafts, heavy weapons and training. However, the threat that Pakistan is facing now, and has been in the recent past, calls for entirely different measures. Bombings and heavy artillery are out of the question when militants establish comfortable bases among civilians and find sympathiser among the masses. In fact, these tactics – such as drone attacks that have inadvertently killed hundreds of civilians – have consistently alienated the Pakistani people and allied them with the Taliban.
Failures in the system also run deep in the education and health sectors, both important factors in the welfare of the Pakistani society. In terms of education, almost half of Pakistan’s children (45%) drop out before completing their elementary schooling . The schools are often underfunded and decrepit and about a fourth of elementary school teachers are untrained. According to UNESCO’s data from 2004, out of 150,644 government schools, 29,020 do not have electricity, 21,636 lack toilets and 3,572 have no building structure. Almost a quarter of primary schools cannot provide their students with textbooks and 9% are in need of blackboards.
Consequently, when government schools fail to provide basic standards, parents turn to the madrasas for an Islamic education, where their children are even likely to receive a meal. Unfortunately, among these religious schools there are also those that preach extremism and serve as recruitment centers for future militants.
Just as Pakistan’s government has not implemented land, law or education reforms, the health sector has also remained on the sidelines. Health services tend to be inefficient, often inaccessible and beleaguered by corruption. For every 1,300 people there is 1 doctor and for every 30,000 people there is only 1 nurse. As a result, one in 23 women die during childbirth, compared to one in 5,000 in most developed countries. Pakistan is also one of four countries that still grapple with polio, together with Afghanistan, India and Nigeria. According to a Pakistan scholar, Dr. Samia Altaf, over the last 60 years Pakistan has received $58 billion in foreign aid for health and population sectors. However, much like the billions of dollars that have failed to safeguard the country from extremists, there is very little to show for the aid money destined for public health as it has all too often served the private interests of corrupt officials.
Although reforms will not change around the violence that have already devastated the Swat region, their absence is one of the root causes of this massive displacement and bloodshed. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done and it is difficult to predict just how much more destruction may follow in the weeks and months to come. However, no amount of military force will be able to eradicate the extremists from Pakistan’s territory, if it does, they will simply regroup in another area. Pakistan is undoubtedly going to need force to fight the current battle, but as it does, a sweeping change in policies and a shakeup of the aforementioned sectors needs to be on top of the government’s agenda. Unless Pakistan addresses these issues head on, extremists will continue to find a safe haven within its borders.
1.- Data and statistics on education and healthcare may be found in: Abbas, Hassan (2009): “Pakistan can defy the odds: How to rescue a failing state”, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. http://www.ispu.org/files/PDFs/ispu-pakistan_can_defy_the_odds.pdf