Grassroots attempts to foster peace in Pakistan provide hope for communities torn apart by war with the Taliban
There has been much soul-searching in Pakistan of late, and with good reason. Although the Army claims to have largely pushed the Taliban out of the Swat Valley, the most developed part of the country yet infiltrated by the insurgents, the war continues in all of its brutality and uncertainty.
Even in Swat it is unclear whether the Taliban are really vanquished. The government may have told the millions made homeless by this conflict that it is safe to return, but the army’s inability to eliminate key Swat Taliban leaders and the existence of huge pockets of remote mountainous terrain incapable of ever being properly secured make the possibility of a Taliban return a real threat.
According to residents in the region – from Buner some 60 miles from the national capital Islamabad to Dir on the cusp of the Afghan border – the Taliban have recommenced their now infamous radio broadcasts, after a two month hiatus, and distribute audio and video recordings demonstrating their grisly prowess.
As the violence persists, many are wondering what precisely the ultimate measure of success is. Is the aim to reconquer territory ostensibly controlled by the Taliban? Even at the worst of times the insurgents ruled discreetly, as guerrilla armies generally do, often with strong support from village communities resentful over decades of state marginalisation. And what about the Taliban’s roots: are the mainstream religious political parties that nurtured them ideologically and the army that developed Islamic militancy in the first place going to be called to account?
Those are some of the questions being posed by the Swat Valley’s Aman Tehreek, or the Peace Movement, established by Aryana Institute of Regional Research and Advocacy, teachers, community organisations and concerned citizens with the express objective of seeking a peaceful and sustainable resolution to the current conflict.
“There is a social, moral and political breakdown in Pakistani society,” said Raza Rabbani, a Pakistan Peoples party senator in the federal parliament, at a recent Aman Tehreek gathering in Islamabad.
Aman Tehreek is but one of several grassroots attempts to foster peace in Pakistan and especially the troubled North West Frontier province (NWFP). Peace committees have sprung up in several towns, typically to broker ceasefire agreements between the army and local Taliban insurgents.
In contrast, Aman Tehreek takes a broader view of the conflict. Its immediate concern is trying to facilitate humanitarian assistance and rehabilitation for the war-torn communities of NWFP. A longer-term objective is to promote traditional Pakhtun culture – like music, dance and poetry suppressed after years of militant Islamism often under state sponsorship, education and development to reduce the chances of future radicalisation.
This war has certainly seen its fair share of violence – the Taliban often mutilate the corpses of soldiers and those, like dancers and music shop owners, it considers apostates. The army, for its part, has been guilty of killing many hundreds if not thousands of civilian deaths (precise figures will never be known) owing to its use of overwhelming, sometimes indiscriminate force.
“In all of our Pashtun history, we never saw such barbarism,” says Abdur Raheem Mundokhel from the Pakhtoonkhwa Milli Awami party. “We have a history [of] people being killed in blood feuds, but still they would give honour even to their enemies.”
The army has been in the sights of Aman Tehreek for its role in the radicalisation and militarisation of Pakistan’s Pashtuns communities, and its recent decision to open garrisons in newly liberated parts of Swat and Buner, a move it sees as a stop-gap attempt to consolidate the military’s clout at the expense of more sustainable strategies for long-term peace.
Aman Tehreek also criticises the security authorities for arresting tribal Pashtuns not linked to the militancy simply because they belong to clans associated with the Taliban.
Education, according to Aman Tehreek member and teacher Ziauddin Yusufzai, is the key to preventing future extremism. He should know. A teacher at one of the last schools to defy Taliban edicts and teach girls in Swat, he notes low levels of literacy, poor employment prospects and marginalisation of women have been wellsprings of opportunity for extremists.
There are fears of internecine tribal feuds turning bloody in the aftermath of Taliban rule: civilians favoured by the insurgents or whose relatives joined the Taliban are fearful of reprisals from those who suffered during the conflict.
Underlying this is the social and economic divide between the mass of poor and the wealthy. In every conflict region, wealthy and influential feudal families and parliamentarians quickly fled leaving ordinary townsfolk exposed to the Taliban’s worst excesses. Yet even now after the army seems to have vanquished the Taliban, the elite remain fearful of returning to their communities. As a result, resentments fester and this, along with a lingering power vacuum, makes a Taliban return an ever-present threat. Recognising this, Aman Tehreek has called on parliamentarians from the newly liberated regions to accompany their communities back to their homes.
Most of them now lie in ruins. Hundreds of schools and hospitals have been destroyed by Taliban or army bombardment. Government authorities have scrambled to repair roads, electricity grids and other civil infrastructure, but it is a massive task that will take years of planning and funding. The UN estimates that the cost of totally rehabilitating these former war zones will be in the billions. The Pakistan government says it has already paid Rs25,000 (£180) each to 125,000 displaced families while the US has pledged a further $US165m in humanitarian aid for the displaced on top of $249m provided between May and June. The British government has given £22m.
The financial assistance is vital to redevelop this devastated land. Just as important, however, are efforts like those of Aman Tehreek in rebuilding the shattered cultural life of Pakistan’s displaced.
[Originally published at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jul/25/pakistan-taliban-frontier]