*First published in The Nation. Posting the unedited version here:
Pakistan’s momentous decision to battle militants in North Waziristan under the banner of Zarb-e-Azb has struck a decisive hour for the country and nation. However, while the dominant focus has been on the on-ground offensive, remaining aspects of the fight such as the ideological prevalence of the extremist ideology in the state and society, and the implications of the decision have been seemingly blurred into insignificance.
The military operation has come with a large human cost that is generally dehumanized to lump up as Internally Displaced Persons.
Over half a million IDPs have been registered so far, with the numbers expected to swell and exert pressure on the government’s capacity and capability to ease their massive predicament.
Rashida Dohad, programme director at the Omar Asghar Khan Foundation, penned the plight of the fleeing IDPs while explaining the languor nature of response to it in her article in The News titled ‘Displaced, Disowned’:
‘The state’s ineffective response can be partly attributed to the proverbial high number of cooks that spoil the broth. The federal government authorised the operation, which is being carried out by the military in NWA leading to an exodus of local people from Fata who are taking refuge in the settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
So who is in-charge? At times, all appear busy – the federal government, the military, the provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the administration in Fata. More often none assume responsibility, with each blaming the other for the suffering caused to the people of NWA, who are not just displaced, but also disowned.’
But while the Pakistani government’s response to various emergencies and crises has traditionally been slow, sluggish and therefore, often ineffective; this fresh crisis of displacement has given rise to immense ease and access with which extremist and militant organizations are being allowed to operate as relief groups – which can potentially have grave implications.
‘The FaIah-e-Insaniyat Foundation volunteer quickly serves one IDP after another, and then moves back to the relief camp set up just outside the sports complex — the only one in the vicinity — for a refill. There’s a huge banner which states: “In these tough times, we are standing with you [the IDPs] — Jamaatud Dawa.”
The organisation has over 200 volunteers distributing aid across Bannu, with 25 ambulances on standby. Sarfaraz says they have given out more than 112,000 food packets, and provided medical treatment to over 10,000 patients.
And it is not just JuD that is free to operate in this region. Just half a kilometre before the sports complex, a large banner in blood-red colour bears the name of Masood Azhar, and calls him the Ameer-ul-Mujahideen. The camp, which provides water and medical facilities, also has a queue of people waiting to see the doctor.’
This is not the first time this occurrence has surfaced. When the devastating floods of 2010 wrecked the country, displacing millions, the same extremist and militant organizations stepped up to provide aid as the then-Pakistan People’s Party government stumbled in the effort.
Published on August 23rd 2010, Corey Flintoff’s report on NPR titled ‘In Pakistan, Militants Use Aid to Seek Support’ described a similar situation:
‘There are a lot of reports of extremist groups stepping up to provide aid,” says Molly Kinder, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to reducing poverty.
Kinder, whose work focuses on the effectiveness of U.S. foreign aid, says the government of Pakistan “has clearly lost the war” in terms of winning credit for its relief efforts. “Even if the reports are exaggerated, the extremists have created the impression that they care about ordinary people,” she says.’
It is in such instances when the government limps to act that such groups find fertile ground to posit themselves as alternatives in front of the people, especially those in need of help, building popular bases of support and converting their ambitions into influence and power; through which they gain the audacity to later pose a challenge to the entire state and society.
As Zarb-e-Azb rages on, it must be realized that it is not just an Operation, it is a war with multiple battles. And while the main front is North Waziristan, it has opened another front within the IDP camps as extremist and militant organizations capitalize the crisis.
It might be the case that Pakistan is supplanting one extremism with another in this hour of crisis as the organizations assert themselves through practical measures, presenting themselves as saviors of the IDPs; winning their sympathy, good-will and trust in contrast to their disillusionment with the government. And later managing to channel the discontent to recruit soldiers and supporters for their perverted causes and twisted ideologies; which one day might acquire enough strength to require another Zarb-e-Azb for its eradication.
‘While the state fidgets or forsakes, dangerous non-state actors are quick to fill the vacuum. Banners displayed in Bannu, claiming that Jamat-ud-Dawa stands by affected people in their hour of need, mock the ban placed on this organisation. Unconcerned, JuD is also reportedly fully engaged with the IDPs.
Their agenda is less visible. What is clear is that the state’s failure to cope is giving them unrestricted access to people who are displaced and distraught – likely earning their trust, contrasting sharply with the anger the IDPs feel towards the government.’
The free and open aid operations by ostensibly ‘banned’ organizations such as JuD truly does jeer at the government’s writ, and cheers at this sort of patronage that they enjoy at the hands of the state.
Moreover, as Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has stated there to be no time-frame for the completion of the Operation, it becomes all the more important to recognize the need to stem the tides of extremism from all sides; one of which might be gaining potency by the initiation of the war and its human costs.
If the government has taken the decision to go to war, it must stand by it and brave to adequately manage its consequences. It does not have the luxury to flail or fail now.
The government must leave no stone unturned in establishing itself as the dominant body spearheading efforts for succouring the IDPs – the people of FATA who have already long suffered under the draconian rule of the FCR, a pressing problem that also must not be ignored by this government if it seeks to ensure the welfare of the people of Pakistan – and tighten its grip on them thereby leaving them little space to substitute for the government in relief and aid work; which, if left unchecked, can yield disastrous implications and consequences.
At the end, the words uttered by Shah Mehmood Qureshi who was the Foreign Minister at the time of the 2010 floods must be repeated:
“If we fail, it could undermine the hard-won gains made by the government in our difficult and painful war against terrorism. We cannot allow this catastrophe to become an opportunity for the terrorists.”
~ Hafsa Khawaja