Winning the Hearts and Minds of Pakistan’s Displaced
Winning the Hearts and Minds of Pakistan’s Displaced
Pakistan’s Mass Deportation of Afghans Poses Risks to Regional Stability
Pakistan’s Mass Deportation of Afghans Poses Risks to Regional Stability
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Winning the Hearts and Minds of Pakistan’s Displaced

Winning hearts and minds is decisive in any counter-insurgency operation. As hundreds of thousands of displaced persons flee fighting in Swat, Buner and Dir districts in Pakistan, this single truth should drive the response by the Pakistani state and the international community. In short, how those people are treated will decide if the insurgency-hit zones are saved or lost to the Taliban.

There is urgent need for international assistance. The numbers of displaced from these three areas of Malakand division, combined with others from the Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, now total over a million. The government's resources are severely strained. Without assistance, the Islamist groups will fill the gap, hoping to radicalize the disaffected, particularly the youth. There is some evidence this is already happening.

Those fleeing the conflict zone have to find their own way to safety. In the absence of official support, private transport providers are fleecing them, while others, who are unable to find transport or cannot afford it, are walking long distances to safety. The most vulnerable among them - children and the elderly - are more likely to succumb to disease in overcrowded displacement camps. Food, clean water, health facilities and other support are all in short supply. U.N. agencies are working overtime but are in urgent need of support.

A large number of the displaced have chosen to live with host families, in rented accommodation or in officially provided shelters such as schools. What they need is cash, not food supplies. Emergency relief in the shape of cash vouchers has been effective in other humanitarian disasters, and while this kind of assistance should be monitored, of course, too much red tape could defeat the purpose of the exercise. Speed of delivery trumps other concerns at the moment.

Even more worrying, the military in Malakand is using heavy artillery, helicopter gunships and jet fighters, which will inevitably result in civilian casualties. Unfortunately, we do not know how many civilians have been killed because there is virtually no civilian oversight of the operation and no independent verification. No media are present, and communication links have been cut.

Still, we have enough information to know that non-combatants in the conflict zones are without power and have dwindling supplies of food and water. Hospitals are without staff or supplies.

It is absolutely essential that the military is made to understand the importance of protecting non-combatants. They must ensure humanitarian relief agencies are provided access, and they must guarantee basic services and supplies, particularly medical assistance, are delivered to the conflict zones. The media too must be given access and provided the security they need to operate in the areas where military operations are ongoing.

The military high command are already showing signs they would like to take over relief operations, but it is essential that humanitarian aid, as well as rehabilitation and reconstruction, are kept out of their hands. Civilians understand civilian needs far better than the military, and such efforts will also help to strengthen the legitimacy of civilian institutions and government in Pakistan's still fragile democratic transition.

For its part, the elected government in Islamabad must also plan ahead from humanitarian relief to post-conflict development, and international donors should do the same. When the fighting stops, they must repair destroyed infrastructure, reconstruct schools and hospitals and rebuild homes for those returning. An economy that has been devastated by violence will also have to be rebuilt, and again, the sooner people feel that start to happen, the more resistant they will be to extremist overtures.

However, the state's ability to provide security against the Taliban and other violent extremists will, in the coming months, be as important - perhaps even more so - than the delivery of basic services such as health and education. The people of Malakand division are understandably sKeptical of the military's willingness and ability to deal decisively with the militant jihadis.

Past operations in Malakand and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have been halted halfway and followed by peace deals that handed over entire swathes of the region to militant control. This time around, the military insists that the operation will not end until the militants are flushed out of Malakand.

But ousting them only to see them find sanctuary in other parts of Pakistan is not the answer. Instead, the Taliban should be held accountable in Pakistan's courts for their brutal actions, including murder and rape. The government must publicly rescind the now moribund peace deal with the Taliban, which imposed Shariah on a population that had, in the 2008 elections, voted for secular democracy. It must also end, once and for all, the culture of impunity that has only empowered violent extremists at the cost of Pakistan's moderate majority.

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