A Return to Hell in Swat

The Pakistani Army -- and Gen. David Petraeus -- treated the counterinsurgency effort in the Swat Valley as a monumental success. A year later, things on the ground look quite a bit different.

A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images

On a sunny afternoon last fall, I took a Chinook helicopter flight to the grounds of a former boarding school in Pakistan's Swat Valley, where I drank chai with a Pashto-speaking Special Services Group commando. In the meadow where we sat, the air was filled with the scent of valley flowers. Yet this idyllic place, the commando told me, had once been controlled by militants.

On a sunny afternoon last fall, I took a Chinook helicopter flight to the grounds of a former boarding school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, where I drank chai with a Pashto-speaking Special Services Group commando. In the meadow where we sat, the air was filled with the scent of valley flowers. Yet this idyllic place, the commando told me, had once been controlled by militants.

"What was it like under the Taliban?" I asked.

"Simple," he said. "Just three words: H-E-L-L."

His arithmetic may have been imprecise, but the message was clear: The Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which intermittently ruled this verdant, lush region of about 4,000 square miles from 2007 to 2009, held it with an iron fist, lashing people in public and posting "Taliban" signs outside police stations. Then they were thoroughly routed — or at least it seemed so at the time. The Pakistani Army started an ambitious, U.S.-backed counterinsurgency effort against the TTP in the spring of 2009, the first operation of its kind in the country. The campaign was held up both in Pakistan and abroad as a model of military tactics: "They have done quite impressive operations in Swat Valley," U.S. Gen. David Petraeus told NPR in December 2009. In a hopeful sign that the counterinsurgency has made progress in suppressing the TTP, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn recently reported that the military is starting to turn over responsibility for the security of Swat to local police officials.

Talking to Pakistani Army officials, you get more of this rosy picture: The TTP has been pushed out; Swat is rebuilding; Pakistan has perfected its counterinsurgency tactics. And the United States has banked heavily on Pakistan’s counterinsurgency program, appropriating $1.2 billion for a Pakistani counterinsurgency fund and training Pakistani officers in the doctrine.

But the reality of the last year in Swat is quite different. Instead of curing the disease, Pakistan’s supposed counterinsurgency attack has in some ways only fed it. And America is continuing to funnel money to a government with no intention of using it to fight the terrorists in its midst. Talk to people like the Swat commando, and it’s clear that plenty of Pakistanis in the Swat Valley and elsewhere truly want the area to remain peaceful and for the terrorist attacks that have been roiling the rest of the country to stop. No one wants to go back to hell. So why is the Swat Valley — and Pakistan — having so much trouble avoiding doing that?

The problems in the Swat Valley started in October 2007, when a TTP commander named Maulana Fazlullah took over Mingora, the largest city in the area, and began a reign  of terror, assassinating "medical staff for administering polio vaccines to children" and hanging bodies from trees and in busy roundabouts, according to a June 2009 report from the Islamabad Policy Research Institute. In November 2007, the Pakistani military sent five brigades, 17 infantry battalions, and five artillery regiments into Swat Valley and drove out the TTP. Then the military left and the TTP returned; once again the military plowed back in again. Over the next two years, this cycle of "blow up; patch up; blow up" repeated itself several times, as Haider Ali Hussein Mullick wrote in a report last year for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

By the spring of 2009, the militants were once again taking over commercial and administrative control of the region. Swat Valley had been a tourist region, framed by the dramatic Hindu Kush mountains and deep pine forests, where young couples from Islamabad and other nearby cities came for their honeymoons and families spent their vacations. With the TTP entrenched there, for the first time the threat seemed to be nearing the seat of government, just 60 miles away. To take back the land, Pakistani Army officers began planning a new kind of assault: counterinsurgency operations.

The decision to embrace counterinsurgency was still ad hoc. "It was not a carefully thought-out process," says Shuja Nawaz, author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within. "They didn’t sit down and say, ‘OK, we need doctrine. We need a manual.’"

But it was carried out with the strong financial and logistical backing of the United States. U.S. officials have worked to shift Pakistan’s focus away from guarding its border with India and instead toward fighting counterinsurgency in its tribal areas. The American counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Pakistan, which relies largely on local military and only a small number of U.S. Special Forces troops for training, has come to be known as "COIN light," in comparison with the U.S.-intensive versions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it has been nonetheless an intensive process. Pakistani officers have come to Washington to study with COIN experts like David Kilcullen and others at the National Defense University.

Back in Quetta, counterinsurgency classes are being taught at the School of Infantry and Tactics, and the officers use COIN lingo such as "clear, hold, and build" to describe their operations. The Pakistani military has seen a surge in troops devoted to counterinsurgency and counterterrorism between 2007 and 2010, Pakistani Army Maj. Shehryar Qureshi told me in November.

The operation in Swat was meant to be a demonstration of these new powers. As part of a counterinsurgency project, the Pakistani Army started a radio station and began broadcasting peaceful messages. The Army claims it also helped evacuate civilians before the artillery rolled in, something that had not been tried during previous operations. Then the Army blocked off routes so TTP members could not escape and chased them out of their hideouts in the mountains. Special Forces used helicopters to attack the TTP in the northern part of Swat, and the Army established bases around the region. Eventually, the militants were defeated and people gradually began to come home to Mingora and other cities in the region. This time, the soldiers stuck around to prevent a resurgence of militant forces, and the people who lived there hoped for the best. 

Yet any preliminary work of moving the Swat Valley out of its immediate post-conflict state had barely begun when the disastrous monsoon floods hit last summer, wiping out crops, devastating the local economy, and sending millions of people into refugee camps. The relief effort distracted the Pakistani Army from the basic work that had to be done to rebuild and slowed down the process immensely. Violence has gone down dramatically in Swat Valley, but much of the region is still in disarray. Schools are in shambles and electricity is spotty. Roughly 7,200 houses were destroyed during the military operations; officials promised to pay homeowners 400,000 rupees (approximately $4,700) apiece for the damage to their property, but reparations dragged. For months, only a few dozen families had received the money, journalist Iqbal Khattak, the Peshawar bureau chief of the Daily Times, told me. By now, nearly two years after the military arrived in Swat, the government has paid compensation for most of the damaged houses, or for about 6,300 of them. But local businesses, many of which had relied on the tourism industry, continue to founder. None of this, of course, reflects particularly well on the "build" part of "clear, hold, and build."

Khattak thinks that the government’s stalled efforts to help rebuild the area and its inability to help restore the infrastructure and the local economy are a disaster. "If we do not honor pledges that we made to the Swat people, they will lose confidence in us," he says. "And that will play into the hands of the militants." Indeed, over the past year, the militants have made a mockery of the "hold" element as well, finding support among locals frustrated with the government’s inability to help and managing to carry out further attacks. Battles with the militants continued through the summer, and two suicide bombers struck in August, killing seven. Just a few weeks ago, Pakistani troops found and killed 11 militants in Swat.

Meanwhile, over the 18 months since the end of the counterinsurgency project, harsher assessments of what actually happened have emerged from those who saw it, making Petraeus’s description of Swat as an "impressive" operation seem misguided, to say the least. A June report for Rand Corp. by Seth G. Jones and C. Christine Fair looked more deeply into the evacuation of citizens before the fighting, calling it a "scorched-earth" tactic that helped trigger "a significant flood of internally displaced persons. Refugee organizations estimated that nearly three million people were displaced because of the fighting, making it one of the largest population migrations since Rwanda in 1994" and opening up broad opportunities for militant recruitment in refugee camps. Pakistani soldiers and police in Swat have been implicated in the "extra-judicial killing of terrorist suspects," wrote Anne Patterson, then the U.S. ambassador, in a September 2009 cable released in November by WikiLeaks. Human Rights Watch released a report in July 2010 that backed her up, showing that widespread abuses had occurred, including 238 plausible extrajudicial killings. A film that showed Pakistani soldiers in Swat Valley apparently killing six men, some of whom looked like teenagers, was leaked to journalists.

In October 2010, officials in Washington at last expressed concern about the abuses in Swat Valley. "I have real concerns about the Pakistani military’s actions," Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on the State Department and foreign operations, told the New York Times, "and I’m not going to close my eyes to it because of our national interests in Pakistan." When U.S. officials announced that fall that they would give an additional $2 billion in military aid to Pakistan, they stipulated that the military units accused of human rights abuses would not receive the money.

Officially, the Pakistani military condemned such acts. Crimes against civilians "will not be tolerated," according to an October statement from the Pakistani Embassy in Washington. Unofficially, however, people in the military and their close advisors were blasé about the alleged war crimes and failures in Swat. "I’m sure it might have happened," one Islamabad-based defense analyst who is close to Army officials told me. But according to her, the abuses were not systemic, and overall the counterinsurgency operations were a resounding success. "One of the reasons Swat worked was because the people who lived there felt they were equally involved in the operations," she explained.

Sadly, the impact of insurgent-brewed terrorism on Pakistan could not be plainer, even as the difficulties of fighting it become increasingly obvious. The pockmarked streets and graffiti-scarred walls of Pakistani cities offer a grim reminder of the threat posed by the terrorists ("Real Holocaust will be here soon" reads the spray paint on a white building on Islamabad’s School Road). People here have internalized the threat from violent extremists to an extent that is difficult to understand from the secure world of Washington. Everywhere you go in Islamabad, there is an assault rifle pointed at your head, part of an extensive network of checkpoints built over the years to combat a wave of extremist attacks. The checkpoints have slowly melted into the urban landscape, and the cement blocks are now decorated with advertisements for motor oil and auto parts, a cheerful touch in a city under siege. "We worry about kidnappings and bombings," an official who worked at the U.S. Embassy told me, explaining that staff rarely went out alone in the city.

The government sends positive messages to its citizens. "Be a Proud Pakistani," says a green-and-white road sign outside Rawalpindi. Another sign is posted near the entrance of a military public-affairs office in Rawalpindi known as Inter Services Public Relations. "Love Pakistan," says the sign — in other words, "Please Don’t Blow It Up."

Look at the numbers, and it seems unlikely that the U.S. strategy of COIN light will prove any more effective in the future than these well meaning but useless signs. Islamabad-based defense analyst Rifaat Hussain explained to me that you need 25 counterinsurgents per 1,000 civilians to effectively wipe out a terrorist network. About 1 million people live in North and South Waziristan, where most of the militants are located. There are 34,000 Pakistani troops there, but they are responsible for keeping watch over roads and development projects — not for fighting militants. A counterinsurgency requires dedicated, trained troops, a force that Pakistan does not have and doesn’t appear to be willing to create. The United States is attempting to export a counterinsurgency doctrine to a place that just doesn’t have the resources — or the political will — to carry it out.

"Every large army has a predilection toward fighting big wars, and COIN is a lesser case," says a professor of military history who works closely with Pakistani officers in Washington. "That’s not what real soldiers do, and besides, this is dirty, nasty, and unpleasant. Who wants to deal with that mess? It’s much better to go out and say, ‘I know who the enemy is. It’s India.’" Simply put, Pakistan’s military has no real plans to go after the terrorists within its borders. As Nawaz has explained, along with Middle East expert Stephen Cohen, in a Brookings Institution report, most people in Pakistan see the conflict in the tribal areas as "America’s war, not Pakistan’s war." Unfortunately, the Pakistanis are probably right.

Tara McKelvey, author of Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War, was a 2010 Carnegie/Medill national security fellow.

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