Swat Valley's Hidden Crisis

Confusion continues to reign over what is happening in Pakistan's unstable Swat Valley and its neighboring districts.

The Pakistani government says that the "emergency" fighting that displaced more than 2 million people earlier this year "is over." The Taliban has been defeated, Islamabad claims, and the area is returning to normal. The million still displaced have been ordered to return home (regardless of whether they want to), and the remaining camps for the displaced will soon be closed.

Whatever truth lies in the government's story, its portrayal of the scene is self-serving. The Pakistani army is fighting a difficult internal battle for which it has not been trained. Soldiers have little capability to handle humanitarian problems, and the displaced are not their priority in the war against the Taliban.

It is difficult to state much conclusively about Swat, other than the general instability in the area and the suffering of most residents. The Pakistani army allows foreign journalists to visit only Mingora, Swat's major city, and only under tightly controlled circumstances because it is "unsafe." Humanitarian workers and the visiting Human Rights Commission of Pakistan paint a much darker story, though their assessments, too, could be evanescent snapshots. In their version, the fighting is hardly over. Indeed, a suicide bomber killed 15 people in a gathering of police recruits on Sunday. Artillery barrages continue every day. Troop movements are omnipresent. Roads are often blocked or difficult to pass. The military offensive has driven the Taliban from Mingora and areas south of there, but many Taliban fighters apparently fled the shelling for neighboring districts. Mass graves are being discovered, and bodies keep turning up daily. While some are certainly Taliban members, human rights workers say many are victims of extrajudicial killings.

According to aid workers' interviews with Mingora residents, the biggest problem is the Pakistani army. Many residents openly hate the military and consider the greatest obstacle to progress the army "ruling over us like the Taliban" without first clearing the Taliban from the area. Fear is pervasive; many who were branded as Taliban followers have been taken away and never heard from again.

Survival is a struggle for those returning to Swat. Humanitarian agencies operate only with the army's benediction, so few services are available; most families in the troubled valley are scraping by. The economy is in shambles, and recovery looks likely to take a long time.

Some will say the humanitarians are dramatizing the situation because helping populations in distress is their business. After years of analyzing troubled regions, I tend to believe aid workers and nongovernmental organizations before I believe governments, which have a deep political interest in publicly declaring success as quickly as possible.

Swat raises three fundamental issues that so far have gotten little attention:

-- The continuing effectiveness of the operation. The Pakistani military is finally turning on the Taliban, a welcome development that the United States has heavily promoted. Is it a short-term tactical success for the military but a longer-term strategic failure in its dealings with citizens and in hunting down Taliban fighters? Sources in Pakistan report that no Taliban leader has been killed or captured in the Swat Valley operation. The military operation could still end up producing more instability.

-- The central government's inadequate attention to the huge population displacement that its military operations are still creating. Islamabad has provided pitifully little for internally displaced persons. This is a stain on Pakistan and the United States, despite Washington's $335 million in relief assistance. If we understand the magnitude of the crisis, why is the United States encouraging Pakistan to push citizens to return when their safety is uncertain and little tangible assistance will be available?

-- Pakistan's continued lack of transparency in its dealings with the United States. Whatever the monies provided, greater accountability is essential. The trade-off for Pakistan's cooperation with our regional strategy should not be American willingness to mostly ignore vast human suffering.

The humanitarian crisis in Swat has gotten little attention from most media and human rights organizations, partly because they can't freely visit the area. The editorial writers and bloggers are silent. Relief officials' assessments on the plight of the area and the report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan on mass graves and extrajudicial killings in Swat should galvanize efforts to better understand what is happening in the region and get more help for citizens. At the least, and despite the political difficulties, the U.S. government should make clear what is going on in Swat by insisting on real access or by providing a better take on the scene from its own intelligence resources. Such clarity could lead to greater and more effective help.

Morton Abramowitz, an assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research in the Reagan administration and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.