Refugees suffer while military fights own people to please the US

After more than two months of military operations in Swat Valley, the Pakistan army spokesman, major general Athar Abbas claimed that 95 percent of the Valley had been cleared of militants. Perhaps, but the question everyone is asking is: except for Shah Duran who was killed on June 26th, why has not a single militant commander been captured or killed so far? Have they vanished into thin air? Further, the three million refugees from Swat living in appalling conditions in Peshawar, Mardan, Swabi and other areas, do not feel safe to return homes. Between Mardan and Dargai, there are thousands of refugees still living under trees because the government has failed to provide them tents.

Nearly half of the three million refugees have been taken into homes by relatives and friends or even total strangers. The Pashtuns’ traditional hospitality has come to the fore as has the generosity of other people of Pakistan but how long will this welcoming sentiment last? The few refugees that have returned to Mingora, the largest city in Swat, speak of unprecedented devastation. All homes and shops have been looted; most were badly damaged during fighting because both sides –” the military and militants –” used heavy weapons. Mingora has the look of a ghost town; even stray dogs have disappeared, signaling perhaps that it is not a safe place to be in.

Without completing the job in Swat, the military has now turned its firepower to South Waziristan with the declared aim of dealing with Baitullah Mehsud, the elusive leader of the Pakistani Taliban. The only exception is Dir where a local lashkar that started with 400 men has now mushroomed to more than 1600, has driven the Taliban out of their area completely. In addition to using massive firepower, the military has tried to create divisions in the ranks of the Taliban in Waziristan by using some of them against others. This strategy, however, suffered a serious setback on June 23, when Qari Zainuddin, a former ally of Baitullah Mehsud who had turned against him, was gunned down at his home in Dera Ismail Khan by one of his own guards, Gulbuddin Mehsud. An associate of Zainuddin, Baaz Muham-mad was seriously wounded in the early morning shooting. Gulbuddin Mehsud had been an employ of Zainuddin’s family for six years and was considered loyal but these are elusive commodities in a region where people switch sides for many different reasons.

Zainuddin split with Baitullah Mehsud and joined forces with Turkestan Bhaitani, an older Taliban fighter who had switched sides to ally with the government. The two men had held a jirga, or tribal meeting, last month with as many as 100 elders of the Mehsud tribe in the town of Tank in an effort to rally opposition to Baitullah. Officially, the Pakistani military denies supporting the effort but few believe such denials. In recent months, Zainuddin and his group had helped the government by denying Baitullah Mehsud and his fighters the ability to operate in the region, killing about 30 of his fighters. Baitullah seems to have struck back with a vengeance delivering a serious blow to military efforts, if it really wanted to deal with the insurgency in Waziristan seriously. “It tells people, if you side with the government, this is what will happen to you,” said retired general Talat Masood, a military and strategic analyst. “It says the government can’t give you protection, but the other side can.” Since 2004, more than 300 pro-government tribal maliks have similarly been gunned down.

Even while the military is trying to shift public attention away from Swat to Waziristan because of its glaring failure to look after the needs of refugees in their own land, the burden has fallen on civil society. The spirit of ordinary people, especially women to help the refugees is remarkable. These women go into the camps and visit women and girls providing them much needed help and moral support. Meanwhile, goods –” bedding, food and other items –” sent for the refugees are now being sold in the open market. How did this come about? It is not difficult to figure out. History is repeating itself. This was also witnessed during the Afghan refugee influx in the eighties.

The same corrupt officials have been appointed to administer the affairs of refugees that had gained notoriety during the Afghan refugee saga. Khalid Umarzai who has earned the nickname “Charra” (meaning a butcher’s knife) for his brazen manner in stealing money, is Commissioner of Mardan. Himayatullah Mayar, Nazim of the city, has accused him of stealing Rs. 250 million, no mean sum, from the refugee fund. Another official, Arbab Arshad, nephew of a former chief minister of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Arbab Jahangir, is commissioner in Peshawar. He too has a sullied reputation. When he was Commissioner Afghan Refugees in the early eighties, he purchased tens of acres of land with money stolen from the refugee fund. His appetite for wealth has increased since. Then there is the ANP government in the province. The refugee crisis has come as a Godsend for them. They are busy transferring funds to their bank accounts that should have been used to look after the refugees.

The same applies to the federal government. On June 22, President Asif Zardari published an Op-Ed piece in the Washington Post (most probably written for him by Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador in Washington because Zardari cannot string together even a dozen-word sentence coherently) thanking the US for its “generosity” and urging the rest of the world to do likewise. He used the plight of refugees as one reason, the other being the fight against militancy. “Now, the rest of the world must step up and match the U.S. effort. Pakistan needs a robust assistance package so that we can deliver for the people and defeat the militants. And the rest of the world should again follow the American lead in helping us deal with the millions of internally displaced people who are the most recent victims of terrorism in our nation,” he wrote.

Zardari, a venal character whose public approval rating barely touches 19 percent, remains in power because he is a US puppet. Between them, Zardari and his slain wife, Benazir Bhutto, stole more than $3 billion from Pakistan. Yet he has the gall, along with his secular allies, to appeal to the world to help save Pakistan from the Taliban. True, the Taliban are primitive characters whose understanding of Islam leaves much to be desired but who do characters like Zardari, Rehman Malik, Husain Haqqani and their ilk want to save Pakistan for? Is it for themselves so that they cn continue steal more money in the name of fighting militancy and helping the poor?

Pakistan has an abysmal record when it comes to investing in such fields as health and education. Add to that the culture of corruption and injustices on an industrial scale where it has become a crime to be poor, and one can see why the people are fed up and want to fight the state by attacking its institutions. Even the secularists cannot deny this pathetic state of affairs; their only excuse is that the Taliban are exploiting it. There is a simple solution to deprive the Taliban of this excuse: invest money in building hospitals, schools and in providing clean drinking water as well as electricity rather than stashing it away in numbered bank accounts in Switzerland, England or the US. For 12-13 hours a day, people do not have electricity in the scorching summer heat. Government officials and other parasites of society whether living in Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar or Karachi, face no such blackouts. After all, they own the country. Many do not even pay electricity bills; they believe they have inherited the state as a family fortune and can do what they like with it.

The list of demeanors of Pakistani officials is long and painful. Almost everyone with anything to contribute is on the US payroll, whether military officials, bureaucrats or journalists. It matters not whether they are serving or retired. The same is true of politicians. The right-left or secular-religious divide is irrelevant in Pakistan. Everyone makes pilgrimage to the US embassy seeking favors of their god named Uncle Sam. And America still has dollars to dish out despite being bankrupt. Pakistanis can be bought for a few dollars. The former dictator, General Pervez Musharraf has proudly proclaimed in his book, In the Line of Fire that he collected millions of dollars in bounty from the Americans by apprehending hundreds of al-Qaeda suspects and handing them over to the US. Eight years later and after much torture, many of these people were found to be completely innocent. No doubt, other treacherous acts are still being perpetrated by Pakistani officials; the cast may have changed but the script remains the same.