Like water running downhill, Pakistani refugees are streaming from the mountains and valleys of the greater Swat region, where a peace agreement between militant Taliban Islamists and the central government has completely broken down.
Local officials are expecting as many as 600,000 to 800,000 displaced people – a wave that could help wash out public and government tolerance of the Taliban, or, conversely, heap more disapproval on Pakistan's ineffective leadership.
Much depends on how these refugees are treated, on how quickly and definitively the Pakistani Army moves to defeat the Taliban insurgents in the region they're fleeing, and – if the Army is successful – on what the refugees encounter once they return home. If Pakistan's government can defuse the Taliban threat and win public confidence, Islamic terrorism will have suffered a serious blow.
Public alarm over the Taliban and their extreme brand of Islamic justice is quickly escalating. At first, the militants appealed to fellow Muslims in the untamed northwest of this struggling democracy. They won sympathy by railing against foreign infidels (the US and its allies) and against the government's support of those infidels. They promised to restore law and order.
In February, Islamabad mistakenly thought it could keep the Taliban in check through a deal that promised Islamic sharia courts in exchange for the insurgents' disarmament.
But the Taliban's harsh interpretation of Islamic law has since turned many against them. Horrified refugees confirm reports of public flogging, brutal killings, and the burning of schools and police headquarters. And the Taliban did not lay down arms, but rather moved aggressively toward Islamabad, coming within 60 miles of the capital.
A "paradigm shift" is now taking place, said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton after meeting with the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan in Washington Wednesday. The Pakistan government, political opposition, and Army seem to finally recognize the threat the Taliban poses to the country.
But recognizing a threat and doing something about it are two different things, and no one will see – or feel – the difference more than the displaced.
Pakistan knows of refugees. At the partition of British India – which led to Pakistani independence in 1947 – about 14.5 million people moved between the two countries. Pakistan took in roughly 4 million Afghans during the Soviet occupation and guerrilla war that followed. But over the years, the Afghan camps became breeding grounds for the Taliban. That could happen with their own people if the Pakistani Army does not take this opportunity to thoroughly and speedily put down the insurgents at a time when civilians are clearing the area.
Many refugees are so far staying with friends and relatives outside the conflict area. If the clash drags on, however, more of them may shift to camps – some of which are already established and some of which are being set up with the help of the United Nations and other aid groups. Just as the US provided humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Washington should be ready to lend a hand here. Pakistanis benefited from and remembered that help.
And when can the refugees return? Pakistan must make sure they come home to improved basic services and rule of law – a lack of which sent them into the arms of the Taliban in the first place.
This is a very tall order for the government and the Army, which has been negligent and slow in dealing with the Taliban threat. Pressure from the United States seems to be having an effect. But pressure from Pakistanis themselves is what really counts. The refugees will be watching.