In a virtual replay of the 1971 assault on civilian population in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), the Pakistani army has launched a brutal operation in Swat and other areas in Northern Pakistan.
In March 1971, the army massacred innocent Pakistanis in the name of fighting the secessionist Mukti Bahinis. There are few differences between the two operations. However, there are many similarities between the 1971 Search Light operation that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh and the current Rah-e-Haq (The Straight Path) operation. In both cases the targets were few thousand rebels or militants. The army is using brutal force in Swat and other areas with heavy artillery and gunship helicopter.
The Pakistan army is notorious for using brutal force against its own population, as witnessed in July 2007 Lal Masjid “Sunrise Operation” that killed hundreds of innocent students including dozens of girls in the capital Islamabad.
In the current drive, under US pressure, the military launched operation in the districts of Lower Dir on April 26, Buner on April 28, and Swat on May 8. Essentially a powerful land army geared to armored battles and artillery bombardments on the plains is now engaged in a war against its own people in a bitter internal conflict that is being conducted under a blanket of tight media control.
On May 29, the army reported capturing Swat’s main town Mingora - but at what cost, and with what repercussions? According to army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, 1,217 militants have been killed in the Swat offensive, 79 arrested, while 81 soldiers have died. The military has not released civilian casualty numbers or - as it is called in the modern war jargon - collateral damage figures. At the same time millions have been displaced and became refugees in their own country.
A United Nations source has estimated the flow of internal refugees – all Pashtuns - since mid-May 2009 at 2.4 million people; by 29 May, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) calculated that the figure exceeded 3 million. There are few examples of such vast and sudden movements in recent history. The forced migration from Swat, Dir, or Waziristan, makes this displacement bigger than that of Darfur or of the Rwandans a few years ago. The scale of what is happening also recalls the traumatic events prior to the founding of Bangladesh in 1970-71, when many millions of people fled from the Pakistani army across the border into India.
British newspaper Independent’s report “In Pakistan, an exodus that is beyond biblical” best describes the havoc created by the military operation: “Around the world, only a handful of war-spoiled countries – Sudan, Iraq, Colombia – have larger numbers of internal refugees. The speed of the displacement at its height – up to 85,000 people a day – was matched only during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. This is now one of the biggest sudden refugee crises the world has ever seen. Until now, the worst of the problem has been kept largely out of sight.”
Now millions of these displaced and uprooted people – referred as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) - are paying the price of this army "success" with the destruction of their homes, businesses, schools and clinics. They have lost their families, children and livelihoods. An unaccounted number of civilians have been killed as the heavy artillery pounded the towns from where civilians were not able to escape because of the curfews. Not surprisingly, as a result, many of them feel as much antipathy to the Pakistan army as they do to the Taliban.
The United Nations estimates that $450 million is needed for immediate aid to respond to exceptional displacement of peoples. Also on May 22, the United Nations and several partner agencies launched an appeal for $543 million in aid; but by May 28, the "humanitarian action plan" had reached only 21% of this total. A small proportion only of these refugees - 20%, according to Save the Children - is housed in government camps. Most are living outside them; half of the displaced are children.
Tellingly, the housing of these refugees has caused rift among the provinces. In Punjab, the most populous province, the police are preventing the displaced Pashtuns from entering their areas although publicly the government is saying the opposite now. One responsible officer from Punjab was quoted as saying that they had made a mistake by permitting the Afghan refugees in the 1980s and 1990s free entry to their province.
There is also a violent opposition in Sindh to the presence of IDPs in the province. The MQM and Sindhi nationalist parties have united forces to oppose the entry of the IDPs to their province. This is a shocking reminder of the divisions that have effectively fractured Pakistani society.
The Pashtuns are thus unwelcome in their own land.
The ethnic nature of operations and the issue of simultaneous displacement of Pashtuns in such large numbers and the less-than-fraternal attitude of individuals from other provinces of Pakistan will become an ugly conundrum which will take many unpalatable directions in the not-too-distant future, warns Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of NWFP and now head of the Regional Institute of Policy Research. “The crying need is for Pakistan to quickly rehabilitate the displaced persons or forego the right to lead the Pashtun. They could well then seek their own destiny,” he added.
It is no coincidence that this violence against the Pashtuns extends from eastern and southern Afghanistan to northwestern Pakistan, and it has now clearly become ethnic. The multiple military operations by the Pakistani forces in NWFP and FATA coincide with the planned surge of US troops in southern Afghanistan. It gives a picture, whether by coincidence or design, which clearly shows that the Pashtuns both in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been placed in the vice of death and destruction.
Many analysts see this a part of a grand plan to separate FATA from Pakistan. Redrawing the map of the Muslim world is an objective of American strategists, who are working on demarcating its borders along ethnic lines to create new political entities. To Americans and also to Israelis and Indians, a truncated Pakistan comprising Punjab and Sindh and without nuclear fangs, is critical. The North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP) and Baluchistan, therefore, become targets for secession.
Eric S. Margolis, author of American Raj: Liberation or Domination, warns that Swat atrocity threaten to ignite Pakistan's second worst nightmare after invasion by India: That its 26 million Pashtun will secede and join Afghanistan's Pashtun to form an independent Pashtun state, Pashtunistan.