Friday, 31 July 2009

Of Privates, Militants and the Geneva Conventions

Smart bombs and surgical strikes are part of the new lexicon of war. So is collateral damage.

Irrespective of the advancements made in the tools used to wage war, ultimately humans must face each other on a battlefield. Predator and drone unmanned aerial vehicles may be able to kill the enemy (along with civilians) but they cannot secure territory. Only infantry soldiers can occupy and secure territory.

Civilized nations agreed to abide by certain behaviours to regulate war in 1949. The Geneva Conventions and the associated Protocols set out some basic rules about how behaviour by combatants.

It seems these rules are optional. In almost any conflict zone soldiers tend to regress to the same type of conduct as their counterparts from medieval times. Isolated and systematic incidents of misconduct have been witnessed among the US military in Vietnam and Iraq. The Soviets / Russians troops in Afghanistan and Chechnya were no better.

Soldiers are trained to destroy and kill and the Pakistani infantryman is no different.

Pakistani Army Patrols Taliban Stronghold On Afghan Border

When the Pakistani military finally swung into action in the scenic Swat Valley in May 2009, it was faced with a determined core of Islamic fighters. These fighters have demonstrated their willingness to die for their ideological cause and are at least as fervently attached to their cause as the communist revolutionaries of the 1960s.

By May 2009 the militants were almost in complete control of all aspects of life in the 5,300 square kilometre valley. They operated a regime underpinned by terror. Intimidation by brutal beheadings was the order of the day. Boys were kidnapped to be trained as suicide bombers. The number of girls schools destroyed exceeded 150. Cruel punishments (such as whippings) pronounced by unqualified and often illiterate 'judges' became routine.

There were no remnants of the Pakistani state left to speak off, except perhaps on a map.

In this environment, how does the state restore any sense of faith in the government's ability to restore order? To arrest militants only to have them set free by the civilian law courts due to lack of conclusive evidence is dispiriting for its soldiers. Moreover, it sends the wrong signal to the local population who live in fear of an eventual return by the militants.

The military, which has suffered casualties numbering several hundred since 'Operation Rah e Raast' or the Right Path began, is taking no prisoners in its third operation (in two years) to rid the Swat Valley of militants.

The evidence, though anecdotal and circumstantial, is convincing.

He [Swat policeman] told me that he went to Saidu Sharif [town in Swat] one day. The army issued an invitation through loud speakers to residents to go to houses known to belong to militants and help themselves to anything useful they could find there. So people went and took all kinds of things - washing machines and other household items. In the end, the army destroyed those houses. A different story: someone was arrested in Mingora, accused of being a militant. The army took him to his village and asked three local people to confirm whether he is indeed a militant. Three people confirmed. They shot him on the spot. People were very happy.

Entry from a Diary of a Swat Refugee [former administrator] dated July 14, 2009

It is unlikely that the above incident is an isolated case.

Such harsh tactics may be a necessary short term evil to counter the enemy's main tool, namely intimidation. Undeniably, extreme methods of this sort cannot be sustained and must quickly give way to a normal civic and judicial set up.

Only civilians can rebuild and restore what soldiers so easily and efficiently destroy.

The return of genuine normalcy necessitates a society free from the persistent fear of a return to Swat by the militants. The death or capture of Mullah Fazlullah, the key ideologue of the Swat militants, will go far in reducing the apprehensions of the local population.

Indeed, without a significant military presence remaining in Swat for many months and possibly years the advent of normalcy will remain elusive. The fear factor is too preponderant among the local population. Only a credible security umbrella provided by the military can incubate the basic civil structure.

The Pakistan military may be using twentieth century technology in its fight against Islamic militants, but the rules of the conflict are being written by the ordinary soldier. If the pen of the civil servant does not soon take over from the sipahi's gun then finding the right path may become a long and arduous journey.

U.S. Plans to Train And Equip Frontier Corps Paramilitary Troops

No comments:

Post a Comment