On 9 July 2009, it was announced by Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani that the estimated 2 million Pakistanis displaced by the army’s offensive against the Taliban in Swat Valley will be allowed to return to their homes starting 13 July 2009.

Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmad, who is in charge of the Special Support Group for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), a group that assists in provincial efforts to assist the displaced, said that those living in refugee camps would be the first allowed in going home. Some refugees have already started returning to the Buner district, the closest area to the refugee camps and the first that was cleared of militants. More details of what the Pakistani government is planning to do in assistance of the returning displaced is to be announced later.

Swat “restored”

It was asserted by the army that their operation in Malakand, in the North-West Frontier province, has now entered the final phase. Gilani declared that the areas of Swat, Buner, and part of Upper Dir are now empty of militant presence and back under government control. In a televised news conference, Gilani said, “The electricity has been restored, the gas has been restored, the gas stations have been restored and even the banks have been restored.” He also said that the army would maintain its presence in the valley to ensure that the Taliban do not return.

The army has succeeded in pushing the militants out of Swat and resumed control over the main lines of communication. They also announced that the Taliban leader in Swat had been wounded on an air strike on 6 July 2009.

Security concerns

However, clashes continue to erupt, many times daily, in some areas. Additionally, none of the topmost Taliban leaders in the area have been confirmed dead, contributing to anxiety regarding their return. According to Reuters, the U.N. Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, John Holmes, said that Pakistan needed to ensure appropriate conditions, especially appropriate security conditions, before encouraging displaced people to go home.

Gilani has also warned that although the Swat Valley is back under government control, periodic violence may continue because of the existing security situation in the country. He said, “Sporadic incidents of terrorism do take place in other parts of the country. So [Swat] is also part of Pakistan and that can also take place there, despite our best ability.”

Instability, displacement, and military response

The Pakistani government launched the Swat offensive two months ago in response to militant aggression and advances in the region, which had elicited both domestic and international concerns over Pakistan’s stability. Government officials say that over 1,700 militants and about 160 soldiers have been killed in the fighting. The estimated number of civilian casualties remains unknown.

About 2 million people fled their homes in Pakistan’s northwestern region since the fighting had begun. Most of the displaced people have stayed with family and friends or what are called “host families”, and about 280,000 lived in tent camps. There are also many that lived in government buildings, such as schools, and some had moved away from northwest Pakistan altogether.

The Pakistani military is currently preparing for an operation on South Waziristan, a region in northwestern Pakistan that borders Afghanistan. The region continues to harbor a major militant presence and is also the power base for Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban chief.