Saturday, May 30, 2009

The IDP issue

During a visit to a camp in Swabi on May 29, President Asif Ali Zardari has made it clear he sees the IDPs as people who deserve the attention of the entire nation. The comments come at a time when controversy over the entry of the displaced persons into Sindh continues. In cities of Punjab too, vague allegations that unemployed young men from Swat and elsewhere may be involved in armed crime has led to hesitation on the part of people regarding their attitudes towards the IDPs. The entire situation needs to be looked at rationally and realistically. There is every possibility that some of the IDPs may not be able to return home for several months. Meanwhile there is also a distinct likelihood of further displacements as fighting continues and its arena is expanded to Waziristan and other stretches of the northern areas such as the Kurram Agency.

There can be no doubt at all that the IDPs deserve all possible help and the support of other citizens. The UN has termed the displacements, which the Pakistan government says has brought three million people out of their homes, one of the largest and most rapid in recent times.. Health experts visiting camps have stressed the need for immediate measures to stem the rapid onslaught of disease and to improve the living conditions. Reports say many IDPs continue to live in abject misery, often with host families, and have little awareness about the benefits of registering themselves. Others at Jallozai complain about long delays holding up the registration process. In short, there seems to be little doubt that there is still a great deal that needs to be done. The immediate requirement is for better sanitation at camps and more facilities for people who may be forced to live in their inhospitable environs for months. This alone will help lessen the sense of trauma.

But we need also to think about the question of the relationship between the IDPs and local communities. The generosity of ordinary people in Mardan and elsewhere has been immense. But is it fair to continue to count on it to sustain the IDPs? Beyond relief, we also need to think of providing some kind of income generation or work facilities for those in camps. The need for cash is said to be acute. It is also unrealistic to expect so many people to sit idle week after week without some occupation. Specialized NGOs and micro-credit institutions may be able to assist in this. We need innovative thinking combined with solid implementation. In the absence of this there is a real risk that the IDP issue will become more and more complicated and create a new spectrum of problems. The government then needs to anticipate the problems and work to avert them.

Experts warn against prolonged action in Malakand

PESHAWAR: Experts at a seminar Saturday demanded a targeted, precise and decisive operation in Malakand division, as a prolonged military action would have negative consequences.

The Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Islamia College Peshawar, had organised the one-day seminar on the current situation in the NWFP. Besides others, the day-long seminar was addressed by former NWFP governor Lt General (R) Ali Muhammad Jan Aurakzai, former ambassador to Afghanistan and ex-chief secretary Rustam Shah Mohmand, Brig (R) Mehmood Shah and Dr Sarfaraz of Area Study Centre, University of Peshawar.

Ali Muhammad Jan Aurakzai said the present militancy was the output of Afghan Jihad, which he said was fought by the United States for its own interests in Afghanistan. He said that the US had promoted and financed terrorism and militancy during Afghan war, adding that the presence of US troops in Afghanistan was still the main cause of violence and unrest in the region.

The former governor said the imperialist forces were trying to safeguard their interests in the region by engaging their so-called enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The other speakers blamed the present and past rulers for pushing the country into crises by joining the so-called war on terror. They said the killing and displacement of innocent people in Malakand division would enhance militancy in the affected areas. They stressed for keeping the national interest supreme while fighting against terrorism and militancy in the country.

They said the displacement of more than three million people from Malakand division was one of the biggest dilemmas in the history of Pakistan. They asked the government to provide all possible facilities to the internally displaced families in each and every corner of the country.

Swat’s wanted Taliban commander is already in jail!

PESHAWAR: Following its mistake in publishing the picture of a banker instead of a wanted Taliban commander from Swat, another blunder by the NWFP government has come to light as it included the name of an already jailed militant in its list of the 21 most wanted militants’ commanders.

A Swati Taliban commander Liaqat is already in prison in Dera Ismail Khan but the ANP-PPP coalition government was unaware of his arrest. His name was thus included in the list that was published in the form of a half-page newspaper advertisement two days ago to lure informers with the promise of monetary reward for those able to assist in the capture of the 21 Taliban leaders and commanders from Swat.

In the advertisement released and paid for by the NWFP government, Liaqat is identified as a local Taliban commander in Swat’s Khwazakhela area. Head-money of Rs 2 million for him is also mentioned. In the picture published in the advertisement, Liaqat is wearing a white Chitrali cap and has a grey beard with a sprinkling of black hair.

But the same man is imprisoned in the Central Prison, Dera Ismail Khan, where he was shifted last year from the Timergara jail in Lower Dir district. He was among five Swati Taliban prisoners who were moved to Dera Ismail Khan following incidents of violence in the Timergara prison. Another 15 Taliban prisoners from Timergara were first shifted to the Haripur jail and then brought to Dera Ismail Khan. Seven Swati Taliban prisoners are still being held in the sprawling, largely mud-built prison at Dera Ismail Khan. Others were freed following the peace deal in Swat or shifted to different prisons.

Officials at the Central Prison, Dera Ismail Khan, told The News that the jail superintendent, Khalid Abbas, was intrigued when he saw Liaqat’s picture in the newspapers. He and his deputy superintendent, Binyamin, quickly probed the matter and their doubts were confirmed when it turned out that Liaqat was already imprisoned at the Dera Ismail Khan prison. Khalid Abbas promptly reported the matter to the Inspector General of Prisons, Akbar Khan, in Peshawar.

Taliban commander Liaqat, whose year of birth in his national identity card is 1950, belongs to Langar village in Swat’s Khwazakhela tehsil. Seven cases are pending against him in Anti-Terrorism Court but he hasn’t been produced in any court thus far.

The ignorance of the NWFP government about Liaqat’s arrest is the second instance of faulty intelligence regarding the whereabouts of the Taliban commanders. In the advertisement that was published by the provincial government to announce head-money for the 21 top Taliban commanders from Swat, the picture of the wrong person was used and he was identified as militants’ commander Qari Mushtaq belonging to Gulibagh area. A monetary reward of Rs 3 million was offered for his capture.

Instead of the real Qari Mushtaq, the photo of Mohammad Mushtaq, a 29-year old bearded man from Mingora, Swat employed as a research officer in the Sharia department of the Bank of Khyber in Peshawar, was published. It alarmed Mushtaq and his family as the provincial government had offered the reward money to anyone who could apprehend the wanted men alive or dead. He went into hiding and then approached the police to clear his name. It was the second time that he had fallen into trouble for having the same name as Taliban commander Qari Mushtaq and also for hailing from Swat. In March 2008, sleuths from an intelligence agency had nabbed him after mistaking him for Qari Mushtaq.

Pakistan secures key Swat Valley city

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (CNN) -- The Pakistani military says security forces have taken back the city of Mingora from the Taliban, calling it a significant victory in its offensive against the Taliban.

Mingora is the largest city in Pakistan's Swat Valley where security forces have been fighting the Taliban in a month-long offensive.

"It is a great accomplishment," said Pakistani Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. "This is the largest city in Swat and for all practical purposes, Mingora has been secured."

Abbas said militants put up a stiff resistance, but their resistance weakened as troops moved in. Abbas told CNN pockets of militants remain just outside Mingora.

The fighting has uprooted about 2.4 million Pakistanis from their homes in the northwestern region of the country, according to the latest data from the United Nations. Of those displaced, about 10 percent -- or 240,000 -- are living in refugee camps, according to the U.N.

The announcement that the military has pushed the Taliban out of Mingora comes after days of Taliban attacks in other areas in the country.

The military issued a press release on Saturday saying that 25 militants and a soldier were killed in fighting across the region over the last 24 hours.

Pakistani authorities increased security throughout Islamabad on Friday after a string of deadly bombings in Lahore and Peshawar, and a threat by the Taliban to carry out further attacks.

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for Wednesday's suicide attack in Lahore on a building housing police, intelligence and emergency offices that killed 27 people.

The militant group also threatened to continue attacking cities in Pakistan until the military ends its operations against Taliban militants in the country's northwest.

Facebook Pakistanis unite against terror

From The Sunday Times
Christina Lamb in Lahore
THE first thing Sadaffe Abid did when she heard Wednesday’s massive bomb rattling the windows in her office four miles away was, like most residents of Lahore, to telephone to check on family and friends. However, what she did next was more surprising.

“I told them we should come out on to the streets to protest against these militants,” she said. “This bomb was meant to turn public opinion against the army operation to clear the Taliban from Swat, and we shouldn’t give in.”

The stylishly dressed Abid, 35, is chief executive of a foundation providing microfinance for rural women, and says until recently she never thought the Taliban were anything to do with her.

Yet twice in the past two months she and many of her friends have gathered for rallies in the Mall in central Lahore, holding placards declaring “No to terrorism”, after spreading the word through Facebook and text messages.

Outraged by a video showing the Taliban flogging a young girl in Swat, in North West Frontier Province, they were shocked to see part of the country ceded to extremists. When, even in cosmopolitan Lahore, warnings were sent to colleges for girls to cover their heads and not to wear jeans, they began a letter-writing campaign to tell the government and army chief not to give in to militants.

Among the letter-writers was Abid’s brother Farhan Rao, who left his job at Islamabad’s Marriott hotel last year only weeks before it was bombed and now runs his own business. “None of us ever got involved in politics before, but we feel the whole future of our country is at stake,” he said.

After years of turning a collective blind eye to the Taliban, while intelligence agencies groomed militants to fight proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir, Pakistanis seem determined to take on the extremists. Almost the entire nation has rallied behind a military operation that has seen more than 2m people flee the mountainous region of Swat.

A series of bomb attacks last week seemed to strengthen public resolve. On Thursday, when the Taliban commander Hak-imullah Mehsud warned that residents should evacuate the cities of Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Multan or face further attacks, most stayed put.

Some kept children home from school, shops stayed closed and public places and hotels were largely deserted, but the mood was one of defiance. “It’s our war,” said one of the country’s biggest textile manufacturers. “We’re the ones who have to live here.”

Inspired by the lawyers’ movement, which had the country’s chief justice restored last March after an unprecedented two-year campaign, citizens’ groups in Peshawar are planning a march against terrorism. “We can no longer just stand by,” said Maryam Bibi, one of the organisers, who runs a women’s group in Waziristan, near the troubled Afghan border.

Such moves may be small but represent a shift of attitude in a country which has often blamed its problems on outsiders, usually Indians, rather than recognise its own failings.

“It’s a huge change,” said Pakistan’s leading human rights activist, Asma Jahangir. “For a long time it felt like we were the only ones raising voices against these militants while the rest of country remained silent and we were labelled anti-Pakistan. I just hope it’s not too late.”

Last week the Taliban showed they can hit anywhere, with two bombs in Peshawar and one in Lahore. On Friday a man wearing a suicide vest was arrested entering Islamabad, the capital.

In Lahore the area around the police headquarters was still sealed off yesterday after the powerful car bomb that killed at least 24 and injured 200 on Wednesday. That section of Mall Road was heavily guarded but gunmen shot at police before driving in and detonating the bomb.

That blast was the third big attack in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, in three months. In March a raid on the police training centre led to an eight-hour siege in which 18 died, just weeks after gunmen attacked Sri Lanka’s visiting cricket team, killing six police guards and a bus driver.

“Lahore is now the real prize for militants,” said an intelligence official.

As chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif is charged with holding off the insurgents and protecting its 82m people. Staff say he works from 7am to midnight. He looks exhausted.

“There’s no doubt that one of their aims is to penetrate into Punjab as well as to stop the operation in Swat,” he said. “But I think finally the whole nation is behind the concept of not allowing the insurgency to cripple our society.”

In his view Pakistan is paying the price for years of oppression of its poor and needs a social revolution. Pointing out that the Taliban won public support in Swat by demanding an Islamic justice system, he said: “To think in a society thirsting for justice that people will look away from such a movement is fooling ourselves.”

Sharif, a member of the main opposition party run by his elder brother Nawaz, added: “If we don’t all work together, then we are doomed and, God forbid, this country will fall apart.”

His own efforts in Punjab have focused on improving intelligence-gathering and ensuring police, who have borne the brunt of attacks, are better equipped and paid. A believer in zero tolerance, he has proscribed all local militant organisations and kept their leaders under house arrest.

“We’re doing everything we can to stop their activities,” he said. “But just as it did not come overnight, it will not go overnight.”

Almost all suicide bombers who have been identified or arrested in Punjab have been aged between 14 and 22, so much of his focus is on youth. “Education is a key factor to curb this militancy,” he added.

Many here see Nawaz Sharif, 59, as the best hope for the future. On Friday the former prime minister was hosting his weekly Meet the People day at his farm, just outside Lahore, providing a free lunch to 3,000 supporters.

Known as the Lion of Punjab, Sharif is by far the most popular politician in Pakistan since the assassination of the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Intensive lobbying by David Miliband, the foreign secretary, has persuaded Washington to overcome America’s reluctance to deal with him, based on concern that he is too close to the religious parties.

Last week a Supreme Court ban on Sharif taking office was reversed, leading to speculation that he might use his strong public support to force a mid-term election.

Inside his white colonnaded mansion, where deer, black buck and peacocks roam the lawns outside, and two stuffed lions guard his drawing room filled with crystal and gold, Sharif insists Pakistan must set about righting its decades of inequality.

“These insurgents might have been created by dictatorship, but it’s democracy which must now deliver,” he said. “If we don’t do anything we’re at very great risk. Today they are in Swat and Malakand, tomorrow they are in the rest of the country.”

This week he has called a party meeting where it is expected that one of his MPs will agree to step down, allowing him to contest a seat, and take his place in parliament as leader of the opposition.

Sharif insists he has no intention of trying to bring down the government. “I firmly believe the issues are so grave that no single party can deal with this alone. We all have to deal with them together,” he said.

Army fillip

Yesterday Pakistani forces recaptured Mingora, the largest city in the Swat valley, which had been under Taliban control for a month.

“It’s very good that Mingora city has come under the full control of the security forces,” said Major-General Athar Abbas, an army spokesman.

He added that 1,217 militants had died since fighting began in late April; 81 soldiers had been killed and 250 wounded.

Most of the 300,000 residents fled after the Islamic fundamentalists seized control. Local authorities hope that many will be able to return home soon but the army warned that it may take a fortnight to restore electricity and other amenities.

Security forces were placed on alert for suicide bomb attacks after the Taliban vowed retaliation for the operation in Swat.

Mingora 'almost' secured, claims army

ISLAMABAD: Troops have retaken the largest town in the Swat Valley from the Taliban as the army presses its offensive against militants in the country's northwest, the army spokesman said Saturday.

Government forces had full control of Mingora, though they were still meeting pockets of resistance from fighters on the outskirts of the town, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told The Associated Press.

The military launched a major offensive one month ago in the Swat Valley and neighbouring areas to oust Taliban who were extending their control over the northwestern region.

The campaign is strongly backed by Washington and the government's other Western allies, who see it as a test of the government's resolve to fight extremism in the country.

'As far as Mingora city, security forces have taken over,’ Abbas said. ‘There are still pockets of resistance. They are on the periphery of Mingora city.’

Government troops have been advancing steadily into the Swat region, bombarding towns from the air and fighting house-to-house with Taliban gunmen.

The fighting has caused more than 2 million people to flee the region, raising fears of a humanitarian crisis.

More than 160,000 people are taking refuge in sweltering refugee camps south of the battle zone, while the rest are staying with relatives or relying on goodwill from local residents