By Brig Asif Haroon Raja

Hardly had Operation Rah-e-Rast in Malakand Division and Swat been over in July 2009 and the horizon was still echoing with thunderous chants of applause from all and sundry including traditional critics, eulogizing the seemingly impossible feat accomplished in less than two months that few odd voices were heard in August-September about extra judicial killings in Swat which disturbed the symphony. Pakistan bashers feeling highly perturbed over sudden turn of events and finding their years of efforts to demonize Pakistan Army going waste, they played upon the story of extra judicial killings and human rights violations by units of Pak Army in Swat. Asma Jahangir picked up the cudgel and led the propaganda assault in Pakistan to lend strength to foreign propaganda war.

Next accomplishment was achieved by the Army in South Waziristan (SW) in October-November 2009. Outstanding success almost obliterated Swat story under the din of loud acclaims. This story has once again been brought to life in the wake of display of a video film by an unknown website in which six blindfolded men are seen shot down by unknown soldiers allegedly in Swat. No sooner the clip appeared on the internet, the US officials sprung into action and promptly condemned the incident asserting that the US could not stomach human rights violations. To up the ante, Pakistan was cautioned that units involved in the act will be denied military assistance.

One wishes the US had acted with similar promptitude against Israel and India, two leading human rights violators and also had a look at its own track record of human rights abuses. Noted writer Asif Ezdi is so carried away by HRCP and Human rights Watch reports that he is complaining as to why there is stony silence and indifference over gruesome episode of September 2010 in Swat. He is distressed as to why there has been no public outcry and why the government has failed to appoint a high powered commission to probe the incident. Muteness is causing him anguish. He rues the silence of media which he says had done a wonderful job in drumbeating the incident of flogging a girl in Swat in early 2009 by Taliban. To give vent to his heart burnings, he painstakingly describes minutest details of the video clip in his write up titled ‘A conspiracy silence’ appearing in the News dated November 8. 

Either our memory is short lived, or we suffer from sudden bouts of memory lapses, or deliberately overlook certain important phases of recent history. Ezdi forgets that Pak Army’s image had slumped both internally and externally since its haters felt that it was not dong enough to defeat terrorism. When the situation in Swat, Buner and Lower Dir became explosive in April 2009, the US led western world started predicting doomsday scenario. They foresaw Taliban on the verge of taking over Islamabad and nuclear arsenal. Every second secular writer in Pakistan shared their pessimism and nodded in agreement that Pak Army was either linked with Taliban or was unable to fight them. In their view whole of FATA, greater parts of settled areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Malakand Division and Swat-Shangla had been taken over by Taliban.

Everyone agreed with US perception that Taliban posed an existential threat to Pakistan. They were projected as human eating monsters deserving no mercy. Their tales of horrific crimes were narrated in great details. Destruction of schools and colleges, music shops and barber shops, women abuses, kidnappings and bone chilling sights of slaughter of captives at Khooni Chowk in Swat, digging dead bodies out of the graves and hanging the bodies from poles, attacks on funeral processions and suicide attacks in mosques filled with worshippers, forced marriages, looting spree and connections with foreign agencies were correctly highlighted by the secular brigade. Several kidnapped police, army soldiers and commandoes were virtually butchered like goats and videos made in which slaughterers with knives in their hands could be seen dancing and laughing. Teenagers as young as 12 to 16 years age had been brainwashed to become suicide bombers. 400 schools, mostly girls’ schools were destroyed affecting education of 8000 students in Swat. All barber shops and music shops were torched. The Army was taunted and constantly elbowed to pick up courage and to go hell for leather against the beasts that had made the lives of peaceful citizens living within Taliban dominated areas miserable.

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My friend Ezdi would also recall that by the time the Army was given a go-ahead signal by the government duly backed by all political parties to launch a decisive operation, the militants under Maulana Fazlullah and Maulana Sufi had become very strong and exceptionally well entrenched. They had converted Swat into a formidable stronghold. Hundreds of caves and manmade underground tunnels had been filled up to the brim with foreign supplied weapons, equipment, ammunition, explosives and other war accessories. Each town in Swat had been developed into a fortress under a designated field commander and central command HQ was established at inaccessible Peochar situated on a high mountain from where Fazlullah coordinated the battle.

Hundreds of suicide bombers were lined up to destroy tanks, APCs and vehicles. Extensive use of improvised explosive devices was made to target vehicular movements along known roads. Supply lines from neighboring Kunar province of Afghanistan were open and fighters in hundreds from Afghanistan had joined Fazlullah forces.  Each fighter was motivated, daring and knew the art of fighting. They had good experience of fighting the Army in previous two rounds. They had good taste of power and pelf and were in no mood to lose the privileges they enjoyed at any cost. They were secretly supported by CIA, RAW, RAAM and Mossad.

Besides Swat, Shangla, Lower Dir and Buner that were to be tackled, neighboring regions of Malakand Agency, Upper Dir, Bajaur and Mohmand were also turbulent. TNSM had got married with Hakimullah led TTP which had tentacles in Darra Adam Khel, Khyber, Kurram, Orakzai, North Waziristan and SW which were also restive. People living in these areas had submitted to Taliban terrorism and had been coerced to provide food and shelter to militants and also act as informers. Banned extremist groups had also got reactivated under different names and were associated with TTP and TNSM. 

In the wake of threat perception, Pak Army units were pitched against a dangerous foe adept in guerrilla war. Besides the vast array of threats from multiple directions, presence of civilians within projected battle zone was a restraining hpw factor, particularly when GHQ had made it clear that collateral damage to civilians will be avoided. This moral compulsion impelled the Army to advise the locals to shift to safer places. Government had to put up with 2.5 million displaced people.

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The break-in battle raged with utmost ferocity; due to stiff resistance the attackers suffered heavy losses. Army turned the tide but at a heavy price. Ratio of casualties of officers and men was 1:10, which was highest in the world. So many outstanding young officers died in hand to hand combat. Save Pakistan was the mission and they saved it by sacrificing their lives. Their sacrifices enabled millions to return home within months.

People of Swat were freed from the cruel clutches of Taliban and today they are living a happy life. They were overjoyed to hear that Fazlulah and his band of killers had been chucked out and hundreds arrested. Army is profoundly committed in relief and rehabilitation works in Swat. People of Swat view soldiers as their saviors; they have found the soldiers dedicated, humane and religious. Out of sheer affection, they keep raising ‘Pak Fauj Zindabad’ slogans. Civil-military relations in Swat are extremely cordial and Swatis see the Army with deep respect and admiration.

They laugh at the comical story in circulation concerning extra judicial killings and human rights abuses committed by soldiers against Taliban. They pity the so-called sympathizers of Taliban who have all along been souring their throats reprimanding Taliban. They also express surprise at this sudden volte-face and ask as to why no such report of human rights abuses ever appeared from 2002 till April 2009? During that period, the main crib against the Army was as to why it was soft on Taliban and why it struck peace deals with them. Do HRCP, Ezdi and his types know the state of extra-judicial killings in occupied Kashmir, or in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Having dismantled the network of Fazlullah led TNSM in Swat and that of TTP in SW; it doesn’t mean that militant forces are down and out. Till this day they have been continuing to strike at soft targets whenever opportunity comes their way. Unable to carryout organized and large-scale attacks, they resort to hit and run tactics to slow-bleed the military and exhaust it. Three more schools have been destroyed in Swat recently. People of Swat have still not got out of fear psychosis. They are scared that Taliban may not return. Army units deployed in the area have not only to keep respective areas of responsibility peaceful, but also have to ensure safety and security of civilians.

Unlike USA which runs Guantanamo Bay, Abu Gharib and Bagram jails where ghastly torture is inflicted upon suspects, Pakistan Army doesn’t indulge in any unholy practice. Pakistani troops are neither trigger happy nor inconsiderate. However, all those deployed in restive areas have to remain alert round the clock since slightest relaxation or belated response costs them their lives. Nine-year war on terror has resulted in loss of over 5000 officers and jawans and injury to thousands which is a huge number. It is a battle of nerves and is specially taxing for the security forces since the enemy is faceless and identification between friend and foe is extremely difficult. After July 2009, lots of small scale skirmishes have taken place between soldiers and militants. Ezdi may be in the knowledge that thousands of confirmed terrorists nabbed by security forces in Swat and surrounding regions have been released by courts for fear of reprisals. Freed men are found indulging in acts of terrorism with greater vengeance.

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Concerning unearthing of dead bodies, Ezdi must know that besides lashkars operating in all trouble spots against militants; there are inter-tribal rivalries as well as criminal elements involved in robberies and those nursing grievances taking advantage of cross firings to settle personal scores. It will therefore be unfair to pin the entire blame on the Army. Notwithstanding these ground realities, Gen Kayani has ordered a probe which is in progress to determine the veracity of the video clip. The Army has by far the best inbuilt accountability system in the country. There is no compromise on discipline whatsoever. If there is some truth in the story, I would like to assure Ezdi that the culprits will be punished irrespective of their status or indispensability. There is therefore no need for Ezdi to remind Kayani that Pakistan Army must act as a disciplined force. There are no cover-ups or whitewash or undue delays in Army. I am certain Ezdi is not making this demand of speedy action on moralistic grounds but with mal-intentions since like many others he too seem to carry malice against the Army.

Ezdi has also expressed his serious concerns over abuse against local population including insurgents in Balochistan. He has hinted at disappearances, torture and extra judicial killings. For his knowledge sake, military operation launched by former President Gen Musharraf in mid 2005 had been called off in late 2006 and thereon the entire control of security was handed over to Frontier Corps and Police. Former is under Interior Minister and latter under provincial CM. Surprisingly, Ezdi has made no mention of high spate of target killings of non-locals, mostly Punjabis and Hazaras by Baloch rebels seeking separation of Balochistan. Over 100,000 non-locals have migrated from Balochistan since the provincial government has been unable to provide them security of their lives and property.

Brig Asif Haroon Raja, a Member Board of Advisors Opinion Maker is Staff College and Armed Forces War Coursequalified, holds MSc war studies degree; a second generation officer, he fought epic battle of Hilli in northwest East Bengal during 1971 war, in which Maj M. Akram received Nishan-e-Haider posthumously. He served as Directing Staff Command & Staff College, Defence Attaché Egypt and Sudan and Dean of Corps of Military Attaches in Cairo. He commanded the heaviest brigade in Kashmir. He is lingual and speaks English, Pashto and Punjabi fluently. He is author of books titled ‘Battle of Hilli’, ‘1948, 1965 & 1971 Kashmir Battles and Freedom Struggle’, ‘Muhammad bin Qasim to Gen Musharraf’, Roots of 1971 Tragedy’; has written number of motivational pamphlets. Draft of his next book ‘Tangled Knot of Kashmir’ is ready. He is a defence analyst and columnist and writes articles on security, defence and political matters for numerous international/national newspapers/websites