Twenty four hours is a long time they say in politics. It seems it is even longer in the life of a nation. This morning (23rd, March 2009) a British news channel was busy showing a special program covering the situation in Pakistan’s Swat valley. The scenic valley has been in the news for months now for its detiorating security situation and the capitulation of the Pakistani government to the militants there. It is, however, being presented as an accord to implement Sharia law and not a caving in to the diktat of the Taliban.
When interviewed by the TV journalist, President Zardari made a complete denial of the reports of Pakistani territories being in the control of militants. The channel then panned to the town of Mingora in the Swat valley. If the ticker below the screen shots were to not indicate that this is a Pakistani town the average viewer could have been forgiven for assuming these to be shots of war scarred Afghanistan.
Bombed out buildings, schools razed to ground, bullet ridden walls and only weapon carrying men everywhere. Every street showed the same scenes of rugged, bearded men, most with black turbans. No where were any women to be spotted, not even burqa clad ones.
If this was not scary and confusing enough there are jeep loads of heavily armed men in turbans (that are not black) also move through the streets. These we are informed, by the TV journalist, are local militias who have taken up arms to fight the Taliban. Where are the security personnel, one wonders, in this melee of armed men? They are there but reduced mostly to traffic duties and manning dangerous check posts where suicide bombers are known to have blown themselves up. The morale is predictably low amongst the policemen. They have paid a heavy price in this ‘dirty war’ in which they have many enemies but hardly any friends.

There are scenes of public floggings and other forms of Sharia based punishments in the program….all meted out by bearded and/or masked gunmen. The reasons for the Taliban running over vast areas of Pakistani territory might be any but the fact that they are firmly entrenched in the area is undeniable and yet the country’s President continues to deny this. Maybe caught up in his vindictive wars with the Sharif brothers and the judiciary he has no time to deal with the Kalashnikov armed, bearded ‘army’ moving steadily towards Islamabad just 250kms to the south of Swat Valley.

 While the ruling elite looks to be in disarray the public plays guessing games as to who is in control: PM Gilani, President Zardari, the army? There seems no such confusion amongst those who are playing for the final prize: the control of the Pakistani state. When the Lal Masjid was attacked some months ago by security personnel from the special intelligence gathering unit, it was warned by the militants that retribution would come and true to their word they attacked the head quarters of the unit this evening (23rd,March 2009,Pakistan’s 69th National Day)). In another display of their ability to choose targets and attack at will the militants sent a suicide bomber on foot to blow him self up. The attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team was another brazen display of the militant’s encroachment into even the major cities of Pakistan.

While the Pakistani English media carries some reports of the troubles in the country, in the blogosphere educated Pakistanis complain vociferously about the world hounding them and always presenting a uni -dimensional image of their country. They partially blame the USA, sometimes Saudi Arabia and mostly India for carrying out a campaign of disinformation about their country. These members of civil society are right, of course, in claiming that Pakistan is not just about these bearded bandits. Pakistan is a land diverse in its ethnic composition and its art, fashion, literature, media, music and Sufism inspired traditions are second to none.

  But the fact remains that these heavily armed militias are slowly enforcing their writ in an ever expanding area and if the country’s power wielders can not soon come to a consensus about how to deal with the terror outfits and their terror infrastructure then these bearded men, with AK 47’s  and swords in hand, might just become the only abiding image of our neighboring country.
P.S: Even as I write Pakistan’s respected human right’s activist,Tahira Abdullah, has gone on air to paint a horrifying picture of what is happening in Swat,the situation of women there and the lies that Zardari continues to peddle while upto70%( Tahira’s figures) of that region is in taliban control.