Pakistan desperately needs money to resettle Swat residents

Refugees of Swat flee the Taliban
Refugees of Swat flee the Taliban Saeed Shah / MCT

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Major Western countries, after applauding Pakistan's military crackdown on Islamic extremists in the Swat valley in the country's northwest, haven't pledged the money needed to resettle the population now that the fighting is mostly over, and humanitarian organizations fear that 2 million people will be sent back home before it's safe to go.

Unless the United States and other allies provide the required money to reconstruct Swat, Pakistan risks losing the "hearts and minds" of those who had to flee the operation that fought the Islamic extremists who'd overrun the region. Islamabad doesn't have the money, Pakistani officials said.

The rehabilitation cost is estimated at $2.5 billion, according to Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmed, the head of the military's special unit set up to look after the internally displaced.

The national government is expected to announce shortly that the Swat refugees will begin returning later this month. So far, however, the government in Islamabad has promised only $300 million to the North West Frontier Province, mostly to beef up police in Swat.

Ahmed said he was optimistic that the international community would provide money once Pakistan presented its "game plan" for rehabilitating Swat.

"There is a good understanding that Pakistan is fighting a war that it can't afford to lose," he said in an interview.

In fact, however, the money has yet to be pledged. The United Nations said Thursday that it had managed to raise only $195 million after an urgent appeal for $543 million to deal with the refugee crisis. On the larger challenge of stabilizing and securing Swat, the situation appears dire.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, told a G-8 conference of the eight leading industrial countries in Trieste, Italy, at the end of last month that the true test will be when the refugees go back to Swat.

"Will they have security? Will they be protected? Will the army be able to keep the Taliban from coming back down over the hills?" Holbrooke asked, adding that the bill for reconstruction in Swat will be enormous, "over a billion dollars, maybe over 2 billion."

"The U.S. is by far the largest contributor (of aid) to the refugee relief crisis in Pakistan. I don't mind that . . . but other countries are not doing the right amount, in my view," Holbrooke said.

The United States has pledged $310 million for the short-term emergency in Swat.

The refugees from Swat have had to endure squalid conditions through the merciless summer heat living in camps or with friends and family in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. They'll return to a region in which many schools and other public buildings have been destroyed, houses and roads damaged and livelihoods shattered, living in fear that the Taliban could resurface.

Pakistan launched an offensive in Swat and the nearby districts of Dir and Buner in late April that's now in its final stages. The army estimated Taliban strength at 5,000 before the operation began, and it's unclear what's happened to most of them. Further, while the military claims to have killed some 1,600 Taliban militants, it hasn't eliminated the Taliban's Swat leadership.

Some of the displaced say they fear that remnants of the Taliban could attack them when they return or that the leadership could lure new recruits.

The army has a different view.

"You will never get a perfect situation in Pakistan," Ahmed said, "but will you keep 2 million people hostage to one-odd (terrorist) incident? You can't keep these people in camps for endless years. They will develop dependency syndrome.

"We will turn them into mental patients if we perpetuate it."

Ahmed, a highly regarded general who was in charge of the massive rescue and rehabilitation effort after the devastating 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, added, however, that all returns would be voluntary.

There's been a bombing in Buner since the refugees started returning there over the last three weeks, and there have been terrorist attacks in Bajaur, a part of the tribal area along the Afghan border that was the site of an earlier anti-Taliban operation.

"We don't think conditions are right, and the Pakistan army seems to be in a big hurry," said a senior official at a major humanitarian organization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "We haven't had access to Swat, and we can't say that it's safe."

The key element of the new security plan is an overhaul of the valley's police, employing 10,000 officers, up from 1,800 before the operation. The army deployment will remain for at least a year, and the military will set up a small permanent base in Swat.

About half the $300 million Islamabad is providing will be spent on expanding and equipping the police force, and the rest will go to emergency reconstruction of schools, hospitals and bridges. However, the provincial government has estimated the damage to public property alone at $425 million. The Taliban blew up some 200 schools, and the army operation caused more damage.

That's not the only problem.

"Swat was based on tourism and agriculture, growing vegetables and fruit. The orchards have been destroyed" by the Taliban, said Niaz Ali Shah, a senior adviser to the head of the provincial government. "The tourists came from the Punjab," Pakistan's dominant province. "The Punjabis will not dare go to Swat for five to eight years. So we have to provide the population with some kind of assistance."

Administratively, there will be two major changes in Swat. The legal system will be revamped to provide speedy decisions under a new Islamic guise — lengthy court cases were the local grievance that the Taliban initially had exploited — and a new civilian-military government body, the Provincial Relief, Rehabilitation and Settlement Authority, will oversee the return of people and the reconstruction of the area.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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