More than 800,000 people have now fled fighting in the Swat district of Pakistan. They join a total of around 1.3 million refugees who have fled recent fighting in other parts of the North-West Frontier Province, fleeing, on the one hand threats of violence from the Taliban against people who do not join their “jihad”, and on the other the gunship helicopters of Pakistan’s army.
Since the end of the US’s 2001 war in Afghanistan, the North West Frontier Province, along with Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, have become a base for a resurgent Taliban. This in turn has created a recruiting ground for al-Qaida-affiliated jihadist groups. Since December 2008 Swat’s Islamist militant leader Maulana Fazlullah and his group Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi have banned education for girls and have bombed or torched schools and government buildings.
The resurgence of jihadism happened to a very large extent with the backing of the Pakistani army, in the full view of the former military dictator Musharraf and was ignored by Pakistan’s US government sponsors. The Taliban’s offensive represents an enormously dangerous challenge to Pakistan’s weak civilian regime — the Swat valley is just 100 miles from Pakistan’s capital Islamabad.
The Taliban have even infiltrated western and southern part of Punjab province, the second largest city of Lahore, and the southern port city of Karachi.
Three things have led to the recent military incursion.
In the middle of April the Pakistani People’s Party government approved a deal with the local Taliban. A ceasefire had already halted military action against the Taliban, military action which, though far more gentle than the current operation, made hundreds of thousands of people into refugees.
Now they were agreeing to some form of Sharia system of justice in Swat. The justification was that this would to bring peace and would win over “moderate” Talibanis. More to the point, local politicians did not believe that the Pakistani army had any intention of expelling the Taliban from the area.
But such a deal could only give legitimacy to the sharia courts the Taliban had already set up in the area and give them further opportunity to enhance their power. That is what happened. The Taliban came out of their Swat stronghold and attacked neighbouring districts.
At this point the army launched a full-scale counter-operation — there are now up to 15,000 troops in the area.
The new military operation coincided with a visit by President Asif Ali Zardari to the United States. Once again the incentive of new cash from the US, lay behind a military offensive.
Pakistan’s economic situation is dire: in the first nine months of 2008 the Karachi stock market fell by 40 percent, the rupee lost 22 percent of its value and inflation was running at 25%. US cash is not yet forthcoming and it will be linked to “strict” conditions i.e. that the Pakistani army actually uses sufficient force against the Taliban and other jihadists and does not, as they are apt to , let them slip away to some safe haven in Afghanistan, elsewhere in Pakistan or the Gulf states.
Obama’s tough stance is continues that of the previous US administration — they had finally woken up to the growth of the Taliban in northern Pakistan.
The operation has very broad support in Pakistan and this the army cannot, for now, afford to ignore.
We have to make solidarity with the labour movement and the socialists of Pakistan. The Labor Party Pakistan is the biggest socialist organisation in Pakistan. Some of its members have to operate in areas terrorised by extreme Islamism (they say they have 2000 members in NWFP). In the coming months they may face terrible danger and difficulty. On page 14 of this paper we publish an account from Faroog Ahmad, LPP member from the Murdan region, NWFP which gives us some idea of those dangers.