Aug 13, 2009

The future after Baitullah

By Kamila Hyat

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor

There have been many who have celebrated the death of Baitullah Mehsud – the man who had come to symbolise militancy and destruction in Pakistan. He will forever be associated with the suicide bombings that shook our cities, killed thousands and changed our urban landscape.

Evidence has also come in that the 'highly-disciplined' band of fighters he was said to have led may not have been quite so disciplined after all. Indeed they seem to be little more than an unruly rabble. One, and indeed possibly two, of those contesting for leadership after Mehsud's death has apparently been killed in a shoot-out at the meeting called to nominate his successor. For these tribesmen too, power, it seems, means everything and the so-called service to Islam little. The failure to find a new leader for the Tehrik-e-Taliban seems to be one reason why associates of Baitullah continue to raise doubts over his death. The fact that nobody believes what the government says means there has been an unwillingness to accept the versions coming in from Islamabad – though this time around they do seem to be accurate.

Several questions now arise. Is the death of Baitullah Mehsud – the man code-named 'Nasrat' -- truly an immense blow to militancy? Will it now simply shrivel away and die – or is this an entirely unrealistic scenario? The events that have immediately followed the death of Baitullah indicate that his TTP is now a fractured body. It has been badly crippled by the loss of the leader who glued it together. But the key still is whether this can be capitalised on by authorities.

Across Waziristan, from where tens of thousands of people have fled over the last decade – the largest number since 2005 -- there is cautious optimism that there could now be a gradual return to stability. Shop owners who have suffered economic losses as a result of the fighting hope things will slowly improve; Waziristan's intellectuals, writers and other critics of the Taliban believe now they may one day be able to venture back into an area where their lives had not been safe for years. This will happen though only if advantage can be taken of the situation that now prevails in Waziristan. The people of the area need to be offered a new focus and a new vision for the future. They need to be co-opted into the state and not relegated to a life on its fringes in a place where feudal elements still hold sway and guns represent power. While tribal 'tradition' has been much romanticised, indeed since colonial times, the fact is that it is in practice often brutal and grossly unjust, favouring the influential over the most vulnerable. People need to be offered hope of employment, development, education and opportunity if they are to escape such lives. The failure to grant them what should be basic rights is one reason for the growth of militancy.

According to the NWFP government's Bureau of Statistics, only 29 per cent of men and three per cent of women in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are literate. This is the lowest literacy rate for females anywhere in the world, and means that in fact almost no woman in the area has received any schooling. Only 540 doctors and 116 nurses serve a population of over three million people. There are only 33 hospitals and 1,654 beds for the sick. In these figures lies an explanation of exactly what has gone amiss in these territories and how the state of Pakistan has wronged the people who live here.

Rather ironically, Islamabad, which has for months vocally 'condemned' the US drone strikes in its territory, as part of a ploy that fooled no one at all, now says it had a role in the attack that killed Baitullah. This seems to be an attempt to quickly grab a slice of the cake – before all the credit for taking out the country's top militant leader, on the basis of incredibly accurate intelligence, goes to Washington. Over the last few weeks Washington had indeed altered its previously lukewarm stance on Baitullah Mehsud, and ruled he was a man who had to be targeted. Pakistan must now persuade its ally that there is yet more to be done in Waziristan. Aid needs to pour into FATA and other northern areas. At the end of July the US Senate Foreign Relations sub-committee on the IDP crisis in Pakistan heard an unusually well-informed account from a Pakistani journalist currently pursuing an academic degree in the US on what needed to be done in the conflict-hit areas of NWFP to overcome the militant threat. The focus on employment, education and economic development was apt. The same priorities apply to FATA. We must hope the Pakistan government will review this testimony and persuade its US allies of what needs to happen now. Time is crucial. Desperate people are also impatient ones, and any delay at this point will mean full advantage has not been taken of the post-Baitullah scenario.

There are other realties too that now need to be faced up to. Attempts to veil them have continued for far too long. Baitullah Mehsud, the long-haired militant whose images have only now begun to appear in the mainstream media, was a creation of our own establishment. He had been brought in less than five years ago as a rival to Abdullah Mehsud. While it is possible he grew into a Frankenstein, beyond the control of his own minders, rumour has it that even now there were attempts on to reach a peace settlement in Waziristan and avoid the need for a military operation. To be fair to the Pakistan army however, it may simply have been waiting till Swat was secured and more units could be pulled out from there. Anything less than a full-fledged operation was after all hardly likely to work in Waziristan, a place where forces have in the past suffered heavy losses. At the same time, losing Swat again would be a disaster. But all this does not change the fact that the militias now being battled were a creation of our own agencies. Some are still reluctant to abandon them. But it is essential that this policy be set aside and a new one aimed at saving our country from militancy put in place.

The death of Baitullah makes it easier to move towards this. To do so effectively we must avoid creating new militant factions to battle those that have moved out of agency orbit or attempt to strike deals with commanders. Instead we require a people-centric strategy, placing the needs of people as the broad base standing at the bottom of the pyramid atop which we construct our plans for the future.

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