The Pakistan Army is on track to establish a cantonment in Swat after seven years of its presence in the militancy-hit district.
The military first entered the high altitude region on October 25, 2007 when its 3,000 infantry men started Operation Rah-e-Haq against the fighters of Maulana Fazlullah, who later became the head of the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and is based in Afghanistan since 2009.
Subsequently, the military had to carry out Operation Rah-e-Rast in May 2009 to drive out the militants from the Swat valley that was once known for peace and tranquility. However, the victory came at the overall cost of the lives of193 soldiers and injuries to another 734.
168 military personnel lost their lives in the four-week long operation Rah-e-Rast. The army claimed to have killed 3,423 militants, injuring another 1,083 and capturing 2,071 during the fighting in Swat and rest of Malakand division.
Colonel Aqeel Ahmad Malik, the Pakistan Army’s media wing Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) representative for Malakand division, told TNS that the establishment of the Swat Cantonment had recently been approved by the prime minister and budget allocated for the project in the current fiscal year. “It will be a brigade size cantonment with three army units and will be established in three to four years. The brigade headquarters would be in Kanju, a unit will be deployed in Khawazakhela and another in Shangla,” he added.
He argued that the presence of an army cantonment would ensure better security in the region. “The presence of Pakistan Army at three locations in Swat would further improve security. Our ever-ready soldiers would be able to rapidly respond to any security situation in the region from their bases,” Col Aqeel Malik added.
However, Zahid Khan, member of the Swat Quami Jirga and hotelier questioned the need for a cantonment in Swat, arguing that the role of the army was to clear the area of militants. “Pakistan Army was given the task of fighting the militants in Swat. They have bravely fought the militants and have secured the area. It’s a job well done and they should return to their barracks now,” he said.
Zahid Khan added that the establishment of the cantonment on precious agricultural land and in densely populated areas would mean another internal displacement for many people. “If the cantonment is to be built at any cost, the government should allocate unpopulated areas of Swat for the purpose. Our people do not want to let their ancestral homes and lands taken by the government for a cantonment and become unknown and displaced again,” he stressed.
Since the defeat of the militants, the army has engaged in the reconstruction and rehabilitation process as well as the capacity building of the local administration, including strengthening of the Swat Police.
According to Col Aqeel Ahmad, fighting militancy isn’t the only thing the soldiers did all these years. “Pakistan Army followed a four-pronged policy of clearing the area, holding it for sufficient time, building the damaged infrastructure and transferring it to the local authorities in Swat. We handed over Shangla and Buner districts to civil authorities and will follow the same policy in other areas after having completed the capacity building of the local administration,” he said.
A total of 13,929 houses were damaged in Swat by the Taliban or natural calamities such as the devastating summer floods in 2010. These included 10,516 complete and 3,413 partially damaged houses.
Col Aqeel Ahmad explained that the military also initiated mega projects in Swat. “The Army has reconstructed 4,000 buildings, including 3,140 houses, 211 shops, 159 hotels and 123 flour mills. We also repaired 49 out of the 54 damaged bridges and 110 kms of the 135 kms total damaged roads in the region,” he said.
Naveedullah Khan, who manages his family business of flour and ghee mills on the Takhtaband road in Swat, praised the military’s support in reconstruction and revival of his mills. “Our flour mills were completely damaged while the ghee mills had sustained partial damage due to the militancy. Pakistan Army helped us in speedy documentation of the reconstruction work. However, we were not helped financially by anyone for our losses and I now look to the provincial government for compensation for the damages,” he said.
Col Aqeel Malik also highlighted the Army’s role in providing short-term skills development training to females with the help of different non-governmental organisations in Swat. “Since 2010, more than 7,429 females have benefited from various short-term courses at different vocational training centres that the Pakistan Army has been managing with the support of different NGOs,” he added.
Since February 2012 the Pakistan Army has been giving training to local law-enforcing agencies in order to better equip them in the fight against terrorism. More than 4,631 regular policemen have been trained to-date. Recently, the Swat Police have been given the opportunity to get anti-terrorism training. As many as 210 personnel received month-long training at the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) Pabbi, Kharian. Another batch of 184 police officers is about to complete their training at the NCTC.
Deputy Inspector General Police, Malakand division Abdullah Khan told TNS that the army’ support was vital in strengthening of the police force in Swat. “Our strength has gone up from 7,000 in 2008 to more than 21,000 personnel. Nearly 7,000 policemen, including ex-servicemen and officers have received specialised training from army instructors,” he said. He added that the number of police stations have also increased to 76 from less than 40 in 2008.
Abdullah Khan argued that besides the increase in numbers, the police force was better equipped and well-trained than it was in the past. “With modern police stations and quality training, the police in Swat are better placed to look after the people. The police is now also equipped with light and heavy machine-guns, rocket propelled grenades, bullet-proof helmets and jackets,” he pointed out.
Although the military has been successful in restoring peace in Swat and has undertaken a number of praiseworthy activities for improving the quality of life of the local population and the uplift of the area, much more is expected from the men in uniform in terms of providing relief to the people.
Targetted attacks on members of the peace committees in Swat have become a matter of concern. Despite the presence of the army and increased police force, members of the Swat Qaumi Jirga and the pro-government Amn Committee have been targetted regularly during the past couple of years.
Zahid Khan survived one such attack in October 2012. He argued that better trained and equipped police and presence of military in Swat should ensure security of people who risk their lives for peace. “The police force has multiplied ten-folds and army is present in the area, yet such attacks take place in Swat. It is strange that peace committee members are always targetted near places where members of the security and law-enforcing agencies are present,” he remarked.
He expressed his concern over claims by the security forces that they have wiped out terrorist networks from Swat. “If that was the case, how is it possible that the terror networks in Swat that had been defeated still manage to strike at will? Every person entering the valley is checked because soldiers are present at all entrance and exit points, even then acts of terror take place,” he questioned.
There is also need for the forces to reduce their dependence on human resources in intelligence gathering and switch to modern technology as in the past there were allegations that people seeking to settle scores provided the army with false information against their opponents.
Also, the civilians in Swat want peace and respect for privacy. Un-announced and sudden checking in a particular area, delays in the flow of traffic during movement of military convoys and impolite behaviour of soldiers during routine checking are some of the complaints that the Swatis make against the security forces.
Despite efforts to win the hearts and minds of the residents of Swat, there still remains a gap between them and Pakistan Army. Instead of feeling comfortable and respected, many people feel offended when they come across the soldiers. In particular, passengers traveling with families want to be dealt with in a more dignified manner.
Zahid Khan, the Swat Qaumi Jirga member added that the forces need to respect the local culture, in particular during house-to-house search. “They order all men to go out of their homes and start interrogating women in absence of female security personnel. We often hear complaints from females about improper and disrespectful behaviour of soldiers,” he argued.
Obviously, security measures have to be taken, particularly due to the rising incidents of targeted killings in Swat and this sometimes causes discomfort to the people. However, due consideration ought to be given to the self-respect of the people as the Swatis have suffered a lot in recent years and are in need of a healing touch.