Thursday, January 16, 2014

Daily Times Editorial Jan 17, 2014

Nawaz Sharif in Swat In a first since Swat was cleared of the Taliban led by Mulla Fazlullah (since elevated to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief), Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif visited the valley for what turned out to be a dual purpose. First and foremost, he was briefed by the military on the situation in the area. The PM approved the setting up of a brigade-level cantonment (3-4 infantry battalions, 3,000 troops plus support personnel from the supplies and medical corps departments) spread over three stations, Malakand, Khwaza Khela and Kanju. The decision seems to indicate the desire of the military to wind up operations and reduce the number of troops, which currently boast a division (40,000 troops) in Khwaza Khela and smaller deployments in Kanju. It also reflects the confidence of the military that their clearance of the area of the malign presence of Mulla Fazlullah and his Taliban fanatics, once headquartered in the area, is by now an established fact of life, requiring a smaller permanent presence only to ensure they do not stage a comeback. The idea of the cantonment was floated about five years ago, but the implementation was delayed because of continuing operations in the area. The words of praise by the PM for the army on the occasion were not only genuine appreciation for its role in defeating the terrorists who had made life hell for the people of the picturesque valley, coming from the first head of government to visit the frontline, it must have boosted the morale of the troops. Arguably, it may be time for the military to take a back seat five years after their campaign ousted the Taliban from the area and allow civilian structures to kick in and assume their proper responsibilities. Talking about the conundrum regarding talks with the Taliban, the PM has argued in a television interview that it was not only the responsibility of the government to reach out to the Taliban, but other political leaders too had to play their part. Specifically referring to Imran Khan, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Maulana Samiul Haq and Syed Munawar Hassan, the PM said he would contact these leaders to help carry forward the dialogue process with the Taliban. If they make any breakthrough, the PM stressed, it would be a great pleasure for him. It should be noted that all those named are considered pro- or at the very least sympathetic to the Taliban. Maulana Samiul Haq has already been charged with the task of persuading the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. The PM also pointed to the participation of, and acquiescence in, the decisions of the All Parties Conference by the former COAS General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and the ISI chief. From that the PM drew the conclusion that the military had left the issue of talks with the Taliban to the national leadership and that stance continues to date. It remains to be seen, however, whether Maulana Samiul Haq or any of the other political worthies on the PM’s list are able to overcome the so far stated antipathy of the Taliban to any talks. What might follow if all these efforts fail was hinted at on Thursday by the PM when receiving a briefing from Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar regarding the security and law and order situation in the country. The PM reiterated that although talks were the preferred option, the lives and properties of the people must be protected and any damage to either should be dealt with in appropriate fashion. While the other purpose of the PM’s visit to Swat was to sell his pet Youth Loans programme, he underlined it by assurances that the effort would not be politically partisan, would be entirely based on merit, equitably distributed amongst all the provinces according to their population ratio with less applications from one province not meaning that its quota would be transferred to any other province but carried forward to the next month, and emphasized that he was the head of government of the whole country and would do justice to everyone even if it meant the loss of his premiership. Good, brave words indeed. Of course the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, for which we must wait for the programme to be implemented. It goes without saying though that the security situation in Swat having improved to satisfactory levels, the next logical step is precisely to give its people, particularly the youth, employment opportunities to prevent them being ‘seduced’ by extremist ideas.

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