Pakistan diary: Victory or death

Tough talk of defeating the Taliban spreads fear among ordinary Pakistanis.


    There are fears that additional military action will see even more people displaced [Gallo/Getty]

    Imran Khan, Al Jazeera's reporter in Pakistan, will be filing regular dispatches from the country as the army battles Taliban fighters in the North West Frontier Province. 

    Peshawar, Sunday, May 17, 14:09 GMT

    It has been a very eerie day in Peshawar.

    After Saturday's bomb blasts - which killed at least 11 people and wounded several others - Pakistan has had time to digest the events.

    Pakistani politicians seem to have taken a bullish stance. They want to get rid of the Taliban.

    Pakistan is braced for what could be a decisive assault on the Swat town of Mingora [AFP]
    The chief minister of the North West Frontier Province says he wants the army to go after the Taliban in other areas of the country.

    He has some support for the idea, but others are fearful over any more military action.

    With 1.7 million Pakistanis already displaced, any additional military action is likely to cause that figure to skyrocket. Pakistan is struggling to cope with the problem it has, never mind any more.

    Also, ordinary Pakistanis are terrified of reprisal attacks. The Taliban are said to have several bases across Pakistan from which they can launch attacks.

    It is a very tense situation.

    The government, though, seems to be sensing victory.

    Pakistan is braced for what could be a decisive assault on the main Swat town of Mingora.

    The Taliban have said it's victory or death. 

    Whatever the outcome, what is clear is that Swat valley is only the beginning of Pakistan's fight.

    The Taliban are unlikely to just give up Swat without attacking major cities.

    The government may be confident of victory, but Pakistanis are terrified of at what cost it will come.

    Peshawar, Saturday, May 16, 12:44 GMT

    Another shocking day for Pakistan.

    This time it's not in the Swat valley but here in the city of Peshawar.

    The car bomb exploded outside an internet cafe in the city of Peshawar [EPA]
    It was little after midday when a car bomb exploded outside of an internet cafe killing and wounding many, including several schoolchildren waiting in a nearby bus.

    More innocent victims of Pakistan's battle within.

    I was on the phone with a Peshawari friend when the news came in.

    His reaction was telling.

    "Imran, I have to leave this country. I have to get out. What on earth is going on?"

    My friend Yousef is the future of this country. Young, educated and articulate he is exactly the kind of person to drive things forward.

    But he, and many others, no longer feel safe in Pakistan.

    Anecdotal evidence suggests that many young Pakistanis are leaving.

    I was in Dubai in March and what struck me most was the amount of young Pakistani nationals who had settled there.

    The situation is much the same in Britain and the US.

    As news of the Peshawar car bomb continued to come in, I called Yousef back and asked him whether he would really leave.

    "My uncle works in Washington as a political lobbyist. He says his firm needs people who understand the US and Pakistan. What would you do?"

    I understand that Yousef is beginning to feel like he has little choice but to leave. I only hope Pakistan will one day tempt him back.

    Peshawar, Friday, May 15, 13:47 GMT

    One of the great things about Peshawar is its history. Behind its noisy, congested streets lie alleyways and markets that have stood for centuries. One such place is Storytellers Bazaar.

    In days gone by, this was where artists, poets and thinkers would gather to sing, argue and swap stories late into the night.

    Thousands of charities have sprung up in response to the crisis [GALLO/GETTY]
    I have come here because another song is now being sung, a lament for Pakistan's displaced - refugees in their own country.

    Here one of thousands of charitable organisations has set up a stall gathering together vital food aid, money and supplies to ship to the camps where hundreds of thousands now live.

    The stall is surrounded by electric fans. Stacks of rice are piled high and small denomination currency is strewn across a ramshackle wooden table.

    The stall is run by Habibullah Zahid, a large, jolly, bearded man who runs restaurants by day and the charity by night.

    I asked him what on earth refugees living in tents would do with electric fans.

    "They need these desperately," he said.

    "Those camps will get electricity eventually. You have to remember that these people are used to the cooler climes of the Swat Valley. This is [a] hot place. You will see these will be most useful."

    Whatever Pakistanis feel about the military operation, the humanitarian crisis has united them.

    In video

     Swat residents make dash for safety
     UN warns of 'disaster' for Pakistan refugees

    Newspapers are full of advertisements urging readers to donate, television commercials run on loop showing heartbreaking images of children and the elderly.

    As I talked to him, people drop money onto Habibullah's table. Some of Pakistan's poorest people, are donating as much money as they can to stalls such as these all over the country.

    Their generosity is humbling.

    As Habibullah and I talk, a small boy - he must be seven or so years old - begins to sing and a crowd quickly gathers.

    His voice rises as more people watch; his words capture the crowd's attention.

    I later find out that he is singing the poetry of Sufi Rehman Baba, a 17th century mystic more commonly known around here as the "Nightingale of Peshawar".

    The boy's choice of song is particularly poignant. A few months ago Sufi Rehman Baba's shrine, which has stood since he died in the 17th century, was attacked by men claiming to be Taliban fighters.

    They planted four devices to try to destroy the shrine, but it survived.

    When this chapter in Pakistan's history closes, perhaps it will be remembered and re-told by the storytellers in Peshawar.

    Perhaps people will wonder how such a thing ever came to pass.

    Swabi, North West Frontier Province, Thursday, May 14, 12:22 GMT

    The first thing that hits you when you visit a refugee camp is the sheer scale.

    "Camp" is too small a word to use- these are cities of canvas and rope.

    Yar Hussein is home to 4,000 refugees, much smaller than the 48,000 strong Jallala camp
    Yar Hussein camp has only been running for a few days. So far it houses 4000 refugees - a small town compared to say Jallala refugee encampment which has upwards of 48,000 people living there.

    But nonetheless housing people is a mammoth task.

    Getting these tents up, supplying water and food is a logistics nightmare.

    I spoke to the cook at the camp. He told me: "We are doing the best we can, but look at what we have."

    He pointed to huge cauldrons bubbling away, cooking rice. The pots had definitely seen better days.

    His whole open air kitchen reminded me of a wedding I had been to in Pakistan as a child - the fires roasting, the multi-coloured awning covering the kitchen area.

    This, though, was far from a celebration. It is a "massive crisis" - according to Antonio Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees.

    A soft-spoken man, he is visiting the crisis area for the first time and has passionately pleaded for the world to take notice.

    "Pakistan has hosted the largest refugee population in the world - 5 million Afghans - Pakistan now needs help itself and the world must pay attention."

    The UN and other aid agencies have a big job on their hands.

    This is the biggest movement of people in recent times. The figures are worth going over again.

    At least 1.3 million people are on the move and more than 800,000 are registered with the UN alone as refugees.

    But behind that figure lies another one. You could call them the forgotten refugees.

    Since August 2008, people have been fleeing clashes across the North West Frontier Province. The army has been battling Taliban fighters and more than 500,000 refugees have been registered in camps by the UN since August last year.

    They have been living makeshift accommodation since then. The Red Cross has registered another 400,000.

    These figures are mind boggling.

    I had a chance to reflect on the numbers while I was in the camp. Watching children roam freely, playing as they do, I found myself wondering how many of them would spend their formative years living in places like these.

    When so many people live together disease also becomes a problem. Cases of diarrhoea and skin problems have already been registered.

    I wonder how many of the children I saw will survive.

    Peshawar, Wednesday, May 13, 06:43 GMT

    The army is really selling its side of the story.

    On Tuesday, it proudly told the media that it had managed to capture a key Taliban stronghold, Gatt Pachar.

    The humanitarian crisis persists as thousands of families are displaced by fighting [AFP]
    This mountain is the base of Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. 

    It is said to house armed fighters, training camps and arms dumps.

    Capturing it was key.

    But has it made a difference?

    Well, yes and no. Denying the Taliban any ground is crucial. But were key Taliban leaders there at the time?

    It would appear not. That's an issue.

    The longer Mullah Fazlullah evades capture, the more of a totem he becomes, and a symbol for the Taliban fighters.

    That gives him strength and power beyond his tactical skills. 

    Speculation suggests that Fazlullah remains in the Swat valley. Sources close to the Taliban have told Al Jazeera that Fazlullah knew that the army would target his base and that, by leaving fighters there, he was able to escape along with the senior leadership. 

    That's important because the Taliban has plenty of fighters, but what the group lacks is men with military knowledge to guide them.

    Experts say the Taliban's senior leaders have that knowledge, which encompasses guerrilla warfare, bombmaking and other skills.

    If Mullah Fazlullah and men such as his senior commander Ibn-e-Amin perish, then the army can say the Taliban has been defeated.

    So far, the Taliban insists that its leaders are all still alive and battle goes on.

    So, while the army sells its message of success, success, success others are less sure.

    The humanitarian crisis continues; so far, the government says 1.3 million have been displaced. Ordinary Pakistanis are watching the pictures on their television screens nightly and wondering how on earth this spells peace. 

    Peshawar, Tuesday, May 12, 2009, 09:22 GMT

    Peshawar is a town with a past littered with the ghosts of war.

    A palpable fear now hangs over the city after frequent deadly attacks [EPA]
    Traditionally it has inhabited the crossroads between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    It was here the British Empire headquartered its great game against Russia in the 19th century.

    It is here that the Afghan mujahidin gathered logistics to fight their war against Russian occupation in the 1980s.

    This dusty town with its cobbled alleyways was the place where CIA agents mingled with their Pakistani counterparts to conduct their war in Afghanistan after the twin towers in New York fell.

    And now Peshawar is once again at the centre of conflict.

    It's already home to thousands of refugees fleeing those wars in Afghanistan.

    But this time its war is raging within Pakistan's borders and those refugees are Pakistani.

    It's had an incredible effect on Pakistan.

    The media here have dubbed this the biggest movement of people since partition, when millions crossed the new border between Pakistan and India in 1947.

    "The media here have dubbed this the biggest movement of people since partition... in 1947"

    Ordinary Pakistanis have taken to the streets demanding the fighting stops.

    One taxi driver told me he fears the break-up of Pakistan.

    Another shop owner in one of Peshawar's hotels says war will only make the situation worse, that the Taliban will hide in the mountains and fight until the bitter end.

    The bitter end.

    It's worth thinking about how exactly Pakistan will end its military operation.

    The government wants a swift operation that will allow them to claim victory.

    Analysts say the army wants to be able to secure the area quickly and withdraw leaving the police in charge.

    At the time of writing, the end is nowhere in sight.

    The only thing we can say with any degree of certainty is that Pakistanis will flood into the camps and the battle still rages.


    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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