Only military victory in Swat not enough

PARIS: A Pakistani military victory over the Taliban in the Swat valley will have to be followed up by winning over the huge numbers displaced by the fighting to really defeat the militants, western experts said.

About 2.4 million people have left their homes because of the battles between the Pakistani army and the Taliban in the northwest of the country over the past month.

"If the Pakistani authorities don't quickly help those who have been displaced, they will go onto the other side -- with the Taliban," Mariam Abou Zahab, a specialist on south Asia at the CERI-Sciences Po institute in Paris.

"It won't take much," she added. "These people hate the army who are bombing them just as much as they hate Taliban for terrorising them." Pakistan launched an offensive in April to crush militants who the United States say threaten the existence of the Muslim country and pose a major terror threat to the West.

The government's past record helping after natural disasters does not encourage many experts.

In the past, the government has generally managed rehabilitation and resettlement programmes "very, very poorly," said Farzana Shaikh of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

"Militant charities, associated with militant groups are known to be operating very actively in some of the refugee camps, providing the people with medical care, housing needs, food, providing them with all that the government is not able at the moment to provide.

"Their resettlement is going to be absolutely vital to consolidate military gains," Shaikh stressed.

Most of those who have lost their homes in the fighting are ethnic Pashtun, religiously and socially conservative people, who tend to shun the overcrowded refugee camps as much as possible.

Only 15-20 percent of those displaced by the fighting are in the camps. Others have gone to the Punjab and Karachi regions where their arrival has heightened social tensions.

"The people of the Swat valley are being spread in all directions, and that's the biggest threat for Pakistan now," said Arif Jamal, a New York University specialist on the region and author of the book "Shadow War: The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir".

"This displacement is the biggest demographic change the region has experienced since the creation of the country in 1947. It's going to change a lot of things, even if the army is going to win the war." Highlighting riots that have already taken place in Karachi, he warned that the huge population flux had the power to "trigger a civil war" in Pakistan.

Mariam Abou Zahab also said there are reasons to fear a wider conflict in the country.

"Pashtuns who are forced to move to towns, stuck for years in camps, rejected by local populations, can have a destructive effect on society," said the Paris-based specialist.

"It is a perfect breeding ground for radicalisation, especially the young."