Saturday, March 17, 2012

What War and Militancy Left Behind: Swat Valley Struggles Back To Its Feet

Radio Free Europe

While Pakistan’s tribal region and adjoining settled areas are still in the grip of violence as Taliban militants target security forces, peace activists and public gatherings, Swat Valley is gradually recovering from the turmoil of the Taliban insurgency that displaced 2.3 million people from their homes in 2009.

Nonetheless, the region's efforts to get back on its feet are being hampered by inefficiency and cultural misunderstandings that have made it difficult for NGOs and other agencies to provide effective development aid.

Swat is Pakistan’s prime tourist destination with scenic valleys, water falls, rivers, orchards and hundreds of rare Buddhist archeological sites.

Until 1969, it was a princely state, with its own unique social values and cultural traditions.

In 2007, Swat and the adjacent Buner and Dir districts were dominated by pro-Al Qaeda Taliban militants under the command of the extremist leader Maulana Fazllulah.

In 2009, Pakistan deployed more than 25,000 troops to fight the militants and restore state authority.

Civil and military officials claim the area has been cleared of extremists affiliated with Fazlullah (commonly known as Radio Mullah).

Complaints From Community Leaders

They also say construction work on rebuilding schools, healthcare facilities, and bridges is well under way.

However, community leaders at the grass-roots level complain of inefficiency, duplication, red-tape, squandered aid money, and a lack of coordination among national and international development organizations.

In Swat Valley, 80 percent of the people depend on tourism for their livelihood.

Before the rise of the Taliban, tourists, researchers and art lovers from around the world visited the region for skiing, fishing, trekking and enjoying its serene environment.

Zahid Khan, President of the Swat Hotels Association, says Taliban extremism and devastating floods in 2010 caused huge losses to the area's tourism industry.

"Taliban militancy has cost the industry 7.5 billion Pakistani rupees [ca. $83 million] and 40,000 have people lost their jobs," he estimates, adding that 137 hotels were washed away by floods in 2010.Khan claims the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provided $4 million for reviving the hotel industry, but that a lot of this aid has not reached its intended recipients.

"USAID sub-contracted the project to another organization and because of this the aid money is not being properly utilized," he said.

"Two million dollars disappeared. The rest of the support has been provided to the owners of the 137 hotels."

Khan added that furniture provided within the framework of the project had been "sub-standard" and that he had written to USAID's management asking them to investigate the matter.

Local Communities Excluded

Reviving tourism is vital for defeating extremism in the region as poverty and deprivation drive the area’s youth into the arms of the Taliban.

Besides USAID, development organizations from some Arab and Western organizations are providing funds and technical support for building basic health and educational infrastructure in the region.

So why is international monetary support not resulting in an improvement in living standards in the region?

Why are hundreds of schools lying derelict while students are being taught in tents provided by UNICEF and other aid organizations?

There are two important aspects to this issue.

First, aid organizations and government departments are not making enough effort to work in close coordination with each other. There is also no viable mechanism through which local communities can become involved in the decision-making process.

Second, international nongovernmental organizations began operating in the valley in an emergency situation and they didn't take the time to properly understand local sociocultural values and traditions.

This led to mutual mistrust and suspicion between the people of the region and the NGOs.

Workshops and training sessions were held in hotels and government buildings in areas where traditional local community centers known as Hujra could have been effectively utilized to mobilize the people.

No Sense Of Ownership

The region also has a tradition known as "Ashar," which involves sharing burdens and working together for public welfare.

The former ruler of Swat, Miangul Abdul Haq Jehanzeb, would only provide technical staff, material and logistic support to local villagers who would then have to work together to build schools and bridges.

This tradition also gave communities a sense of ownership of these projects.

Even the Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah employed the same concept to motivate and engage local communities for the construction of his huge complex along the banks of the River Swat. That was a huge success!

In 2010, when floods cut off valleys in upper Swat and officials failed to provide food items and medicine to the affected population, locals came together under Ashar and restored a road.

International NGOs, however, began implementing "cash-for-work" programs, a foreign concept that backfired.

In some cases, they did help people earn some money but they lacked the sense of ownership and fair play required for the sustainability of development projects in war-shattered areas like Swat.

Now, people even demand money for small work projects in their neighborhood and look to governmental and nongovernmental organizations for help.

Consequently, cash-for-work has weakened the spirit of volunteerism among the people.

Mixed Results

Shaukat Sharar, a Swat-based development expert and sociologist, believes the intervention of international organizations has had both a positive and negative impact on Swat society.

“Now our women have more opportunities to express themselves and contribute to their families," he says. "That’s a positive thing, because the Taliban oppressed women. The downside is that we lost our traditional institutions like Hujra in the process."

Hujra is a traditional Pashtun institution shared by all the people in a village. It's a public communal property where youngsters learn from their elders; a kind of guest house, meeting place, and cultural centre at the same time.

"Now, some people do have Hujras but these are their private properties, not for the public," says Sharar. "If NGO people don’t feel comfortable with the concept of Hujra, they should work to build community centers, because that's the way to ensure people's participation in development work."

Because NGOs hold their activities in hotels and government buildings Sharar claims Hujra as an institution has disappeared from daily life in Swat.

“On the one hand, you can see some positive things developing on the social scene," he says. "On the other hand, you sense that the old values and traditions, which kept the society together, are on the wane."

Pakistan: Swiss couple released

Hardly the people will believe that the Swiss couple had escaped from the custody of unidentified Taliban in Waziristan and they managed to reach a check post from where they had been rescued and taken to Rawalpindi in a copter. The Swiss Couple was kidnapped in Loralai District some eight months ago as they were on their way from Dera Ghazi Khan to Quetta presumably on their way to Iran. Senior most officials of the District made frantic efforts to locate them and they failed. The couple was overpowered and whisked away from Loralai and later on taken to Waziristan on way to Zhob District of Balochistan. Highly professional people had conducted the kidnapping of the Swiss couple as they successfully dodged and misled the local administration, including expert Levies officials who specialized in knowing the areas. Surprisingly, kidnappers did not make any claim or issued demand for money for very long. It was unusual that the kidnappers kept quiet for so long and for no reasons as if nothing had happened or they were not in possession of valuable Swiss Couple for bargaining. It seems that the kidnappers were not desperate people to advance their cause through kidnapping foreign nationals. It is also intriguing that how come the kidnappers knew the tour plan for the individuals, two unknown people on a tourist visa? Were they intercepted and whisked away to Waziristan without local help? However, another kidnapped person Dr Ajmal Khan, Vice Chancellor of the Peshawar University, who is a first cousin of Asfandyar Wali, revealed the fact that the Swiss couple is being released in return of freeing hundreds of detained Taliban prisoners and also tens of millions in cash. He made the disclosure days before through a video message to the world complaining that the Taliban captors are demanding release of only four Taliban prisoners and the Government of Pakistan is paying no heed to his request. He also complained that he is a Pakistani national and being ignored by his own State and Government while hectic efforts are being made to get the Swiss Couple released rather swapped with Taliban prisoners and tens of millions rupees.
In any case, it is good news that a foreign couple is released unharmed and the incident of hostage taking had not brought bad name for Pakistan. Presumably, the Government of Pakistan, in return, rightly expects that the Swiss territory will not be allowed to be used against Pakistan. It was the message of the Spokesman of the Foreign Office while briefing the newsmen at the Foreign Office a couple of days ago.

Pakhtunkhwa: Four schools blown up in a single day

Continuing to do violence to child education in the province, militants blew up four government-run schools in Lakki Marwat, Swabi and Kohat districts early on Friday.

In Lakki Marwat, two schools for boys were destroyed by explosive devices in Dhoda and Zer Janu villages, which are 15 to 20 kilometres away from Lakki city.

An official of the education department told Dawn that over 115 children were enrolled in Dhoda primary school, while Zer Janu middle school had over 160 students.

Villagers said the bombing of schools, which were the only sign of development in their areas, had instilled fear into their children, who were reluctant to go to the destroyed buildings to continue with their studies.

In Swabi, a government high school was destroyed in Kaddi village after two bombs went off.

The incident occurred only a day after district police officer Abdul Rashid announced during a function of station house officers that police would ensure peace in the district at all costs.

Watchman Haroon Mohammad was present on the premises when bombs exploded. He, however, remained unhurt.

Soon after the incident, officials of Zaida police station reached the schools and began investigation.

Executive district officer (education) Abdul Salam, provincial president of Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf Asad Qaisar and lawmakers visited the place and inspected the destroyed building.

In Kohat, militants blew up a primary school for boys in remote area of Kotangi Marchoongi.

Sub inspector of the bomb disposal squad Akbar Khan told Dawn over the telephone that a time bomb of high intensity was used in the incident, which caused complete destruction to two classrooms and partial damage to one.

He said four more rooms of the buildings developed cracks and that more than 20kg explosive material was used in the blast.

The administration announced indefinite holidays in the school and said classes would resume once rooms were repaired.

The Bilitang police station registered a case against unidentified militants and began investigation. However, no arrests could be made until the last reports came in Friday night.

Meanwhile, a former peace committee member`s bullet-riddled body was found in the fields near a tube well in Shiekhabad village in Tank district early on Friday.

Wife of the dead person, Nasrullah, told Gomal police that unidentified people knocked at the main door of their house Thursday night and took away her husband and later locals found his body at a deserted place near a Shiekhabad tube well.

Gomal police seized the body, fulfilled legal formalities and handed it over the dead person`s family.

Pakistan president boasts gains in terror war

Pakistan's president lauded his government's commitment to democracy and boasted of gains in the country's war on militants in a Saturday speech to lawmakers, many of whom hurled abuse at his leadership before walking out in protest.

Asif Ali Zardari was making his fifth address as president to the joint session, something he claimed was an achievement in itself given the country's turbulent political history. Few would have predicted the coalition government he headed would last that long when it took office in 2008.

"The world can see the march of democracy goes on," he said. "We are creating history, while a lot more needs to be done. We Pakistanis can be proud of our young democracy."

The government, like others before it, has barely made a dent in the economic and social problems facing the country, which relies heavily on foreign aid to survive. Mismanagement and corruption have been the hallmarks of his administration, most independent analysts say.

Even before Zardari opened his mouth, opposition leaders began hurling abuse at the government, occasionally disrupting his speech. "Stop looting!" ''Stop lying!" and "Whoever is America's friend is a traitor!" they chanted for a quarter of an hour before leaving.

Since taking office, Pakistan has struggled to defeat Islamist militants that are based in the northwest close to the Afghan border and have significant support at various levels of society. The army has launched offensives against them, but Zardari's government has been accused of not speaking up clearly against extremism.

"We will continue to show force against them," he said. "I believe our efforts have born fruit."

The country's relations have faltered with the United States over the last year after a series of incidents that inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment among many Pakistanis. Last November, Islamabad all but severed ties after U.S. airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border.

On Monday, the joint session will debate whether to re-engage with Washington.

"The year 2011 was a challenging year," he said. "We seek to engage meaningfully with the U.S. on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect."

The government has been widely accused of mishandling the economy, which is growing around 4 percent a year, not enough to create jobs for school graduates and far slower then neighboring India. High inflation, electricity and gas shortages have hammered the poor and middle class over the last four years.

Zardari claimed otherwise in his speech, saying exports were up and growth was picking up.

General elections are scheduled for early next year, but there has been speculation they may take place after the summer.

Zardari is also caught in a power struggle with Pakistan's powerful military — traditionally at odds with his Pakistan People's Party — as well as with a Supreme Court angered at his perceived flaunting of judicial authority.

But while his government may yet be forced to face new elections by the collapse of its coalition or even by a court order, a repeat of the military coups that have brought down previous troubled civilian governments as recently as the late 1990s, when then-army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf seized power, is considered unlikely.

President Zardari makes history as elected president

President Asif Ali Zardari addressed the joint session of the parliament on Saturday.
President Asif Ali Zardari has said that the government has successfully met enormous challenges‚ established rule of law and assured supremacy of the Parliament.In a wide-ranging address to the Parliament‚ a landmark fifth‚ and the first in country s history for a civilian elected President Zardari said the government has moved with speed and determination to strengthen the Federation by redressing imbalance between powers of the Centre and the provinces.
He said we have pursued the politics of reconciliation and harmony. He said we have worked hard to generate consensus.
The President said the coalition government was formed to deepen democracy and all worked together to restore the 1973 Constitution.
He said as President‚ I surrendered my powers. And today‚ the Prime Minister‚ the Chief Executive‚ enjoys full authority as required by law."
He described it as "a shining moment for our parliament" and added history will remember this achievement‚ just as the nation remembers Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the architects of the 1973 Constitution.
Mentioning the measures taken to balance the powers of the Centre and the provinces‚ President Zardari said the government abolished the Concurrent List and transferred 18 ministries to the provinces and enhanced provincial autonomy.
He said the Council of Common Interests was made fully functional and added this great transformation was achieved with complete agreement of all the stakeholders.
This shows complete unity of our nation in adopting legislation to make our country strong and democracy more inclusive."
The President acknowledged that while a lot more needs to be done‚ a strong beginning has been made. "We Pakistanis can be proud of our young democracy‚" he said and pointed the world can today see that the march of democracy goes on and "together we are creating history."
President Asif Ali Zardari also vowed general election to be held in a free and fair manner during the new parliamentary year.
The President mentioned the 20th Amendment which he said ensures the independence of Election Commission and the selection of an impartial care-taker government through a process of consultation in the Parliament.
The opposition started to chant slogans as soon as the session began and later boycotted the session and left the hall.
Acknowleding Prime Minister Gilani s political wisdom, the President said Prime Minister Gilani deserves unqualified appreciation for his political wisdom says Zardari.
Ambassadors of different countries were also present in the guests’ gallery to hear the speech of the president.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, CM Punjab Shahbaz Sharif and Sindh Governor Ishratul Ebad were not present.
Tight security has been arranged around the parliament house and across the capital on this occasion.