x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Pakistan's bid of instilling skills and peace in place of radical ideas from Taliban

Part of a carrot-and-stick approach to battling militancy in Pakistan, the aim is to cleanse minds of extremist thoughts through vocational training, but it relies heavily on the government's ability to find graduates a job.

Men make wooden panels in a classroom at the Mashal de-radicalisation centre run by the Pakistani army in Gulibagh in Pakistan's Swat Valley.
Men make wooden panels in a classroom at the Mashal de-radicalisation centre run by the Pakistani army in Gulibagh in Pakistan's Swat Valley.

GULIBAGH, PAKISTAN // Hazrat Gul spent two years in detention for allegedly aiding the Pakistani Taliban when they publicly flogged and beheaded people during their reign in Swat Valley.

Now he wiles away his time in pristine classrooms, a Pakistani flag pin on his crisp uniform, learning about word processing, carpentry and car repairs at the Mashal de-radicalisation centre run by the army.

Part of a carrot-and-stick approach to battling militancy in Pakistan, the aim is to cleanse minds of extremist thoughts through vocational training, and turn men such as Mr Gul into productive citizens who support the state.

The success of the programme will ultimately hinge, however, on the ability of the government, widely seen as incompetent and corrupt, to help the de-radicalisation graduates find jobs.

"If a sincere leadership comes to this country, that will solve the problems," said Mr Gul, 42. "Today the leadership is not sincere. The same problems will be there."

Pakistan's military drove militants out of Swat in 2009. Mashal is in the building which used to be the headquarters of the militants from where they imposed an austere version of Islam.

Eventually, the army realised it could not secure long-term peace with bullets alone.

So military officers, trainers, moderate clerics and psychologists were chosen to run three-month courses designed to erase "radical thoughts" of those accused of aiding the Taliban.

Students like Mohammad Inam, 28, a former assistant engineer, give the school a good report card.

"The environment is very good. Our teachers work very hard with us. They talk to us about peace, about terrorism and how that is not right," said Mr Inam, in the presence of a military officer. "God willing, we will go out and serve our country and our nation."

School officials say about 1,000 people have graduated since the initiative began two years ago, and that only 10 per cent were not cleared for release.

Officials concede that their "students" are not hardened militants who killed. Mostly, they provided the Taliban with water, food or shelter, or beat people.

That was enough for a two-year detention, and some say abuse, in a country where the Taliban stage suicide bombings at will and have launched brazen attacks, including one on the army headquarters near the capital.

Even if the Mashal institute instils a new mindset and discipline in the students, graduates face an uncertain future.

"The problem is the deprivation being faced by these individuals. There is no electricity. There are price hikes. There is no law and order or justice which prevails in the country," said Major Khurram Bajwa, one of Mashal's directors.

He pointed out how easy it is for the Taliban to recruit people. "It takes about two years to train an army officer, and one month to train a suicide bomber."

Pakistan joined the US global war on militancy after the September 11 attacks, but critics accuse Islamabad of actually fostering the security nightmare in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region by supporting militant groups it values as strategic assets. Pakistan denies the allegations.

The confusion was highlighted this month, when the US put a US$10 million (Dh36.7m) bounty on Hafiz Saeed, an Islamist leader who Pakistani officials say has in fact been helping them turn militants away from a life as radicals. Mr Saeed, suspected of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people, met government officials and pledged his support for the de-radicalisation drive, the officials said. Mr Saeed's organisation denied this.

Sitting beside an officer in a classroom at the Mashal school, Mr Gul said he was subjected to torture at prisons run by the military or its intelligence agency merely because, out of fear, he had chanted pro-Taliban slogans.

"Every time they were talking to us, [they were] beating us," said Mr Gul, who has a masters in political science. Asked to elaborate, he said: "From A to Z, all kinds of problems."

Minutes later, the officer, leaned over to this reporter and said: "What do you expect in prison, massage girls?"

The accounts of ill treatment were echoed by others.

Rehman Shah, a former schoolteacher, says he was only detained because his son was accused of joining the Taliban.

Nine weeks into the course, he praises the de-radicalisation concept but says the army made a big mistake by detaining innocent people.

"When Pashtuns are treated unfairly, it never leaves their hearts and they take revenge," Mr Shah said of the dominant ethnic group in Swat and other parts of north-west Pakistan, where most of the military offensives against militants are mounted.

"I urge the government and security not to do this and not increase resentment and anger in the people."