The Swat Victory, Revisited

The counterinsurgency campaign in Pakistan has had enormous civilian and economic costs. The upside? Not much other than better Western press.

The Swat valley operation of 2009 was so successful that we hear little about the region anymore. The lack of media coverage and the absence of comment from the American and Pakistan governments, except for the occasional effusive one, suggest the Taliban’s disappearance from Swat. Unfortunately the humanitarians tell a different tale, and while they often exaggerate problems to get public attention, they are, from my rather lengthy experience, more trustworthy than governments in describing the situation on the ground in contested, hard to visit areas.

Pakistan’s massive attack and displacement of several million people did drive the Taliban out in 2009. But the Taliban and other insurgent groups are back in Swat and every other area that has been declared clear. Much of the northern half of the district is subject to frequent attacks by militants on security forces. They may no longer control territory but are much more than a nuisance. They regularly kill or harass civilians and military in villages and sometimes larger towns. Their capacity to mount suicide attacks is undiminished. People continue to “disappear”—sometimes this is attributed to the Taliban, sometimes to security forces, who “purge” anyone suspected of links to militant groups. Taliban leadership is intact and grows stronger with a passive civilian government.

Local governance remains dysfunctional and administration has been virtually taken over by the army. Local bureaucrats, public service officials, and politicians largely fled before the events of Spring 2009 and many still have not returned to their duties (particularly in northern Swat). The level of government closest to the people has been dissolved. Above that, some say that they haven’t seen their MPA (member of the provincial assembly) for more than a year. The politicians’ families, too, have moved out. The few local administrators who have returned to duty report to civilian authorities, but in practice every decision, small or large, is deferred to the military command fro approval or rejection.

The flood massively added to civil government woes. It washed away much of the reconstruction work performed after the military’s bombings and added enormously to popular difficulties and opened space for extremist activity. The civil government is doing little except providing the cash cards that recipients often have to shell out bribes to receive. Even where the government does act and nothing is lost to corruption, the official bureaucracy is a very inefficient mechanism with a long lag time. Flood recovery work consumes much of the attention of the military authorities in Swat and elsewhere in Pakistan and enhances military dominance in government and their broad public image.

Public services are slipping back from even their levels before the flood—indeed a public health crisis is brewing. In this vacuum the services provided by extremist charities have a definite impact. While the attention given to these charities probably overstates their capacity to influence the poor towards Islamist extremism, they are growing in influence. Often they are the only public service provider the public experiences (as with Hezbollah and Hamas). However, there appears to be greater sympathy toward extremist Islamism among the middle/professional class than even five years ago—it's still a minority sport right now but it is now not hard to see it strengthening its grip in the absence of government that expresses some interests of the poor and middle classes.

Swat’s residents have a deeply ambivalent attitude to the army. Many are grateful for their “liberation” from the Taliban—but almost all also chafe at security restrictions and fear “disappearances” and extrajudicial killings. Some Swatis say the army wants to control Swat because of the aid and timber money. There remains, nevertheless some faith in the military but this would be dispelled quickly if they ever stepped back into overt control of the government. For many Swatis there appears little optimism about the future and many are trying to emigrate abroad.

The Pakistan Army has waged a counterinsurgency campaign at enormous civilian and economic cost and the country has gained little in return except a better Western press.