New cantonment aims to be symbol for peace in Swat Valley

By Zahir Shah

Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif inaugurates the construction of the Swat Cantonment on November 11. [Zahir Shah]

Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif inaugurates the construction of the Swat Cantonment on November 11. [Zahir Shah]

MINGORA, Pakistan -- Residents of the Swat Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) say they are looking forward to the planned construction of a cantonment -- a site with a military base and military housing -- with relief.

The recent announcement of plans for the cantonment gave life to hopes that militants, whom the army chased out of Swat in 2009 after a two-year reign of terror, will never return.

They also anticipate a resurgence of tourism, which became impossible when the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) controlled life in the valley and frowned on all form of amusement.

Nobody will dare threaten Swat residents after an army cantonment there becomes a fact of life, locals say.

High hopes

On November 11, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Raheel Sharif, accompanied by KP Governor Iqbal Zafar Jhagra and Chief Minister Pervez Khattak, made the army's commitment clear when he laid the cornerstone of the future Swat Cantonment.

The ceremony came two years after the Pakistani government approved the cantonment's construction, in response to popular demand for better long-term security for the region.

Raheel paid glowing tributes to Swat residents for standing up against the TTP's reign of terror and for helping security forces evict terrorists from the valley. He also re-affirmed the army's commitment to bringing permanent peace and security to Swat.

The projected completion date of the project was not disclosed.

The benefits that a cantonment, with its large military presence, brings to a community are vast, Raheel said.

According to the general, the cantonment will be a deterrent to terrorists and a boost to law enforcement agencies' confidence.

It also will enable local socio-economic development by providing the security that businesses need to grow, he said, noting that the government considers development of Malakand Division and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) a priority.

So far, the army has carried out more than 700 development projects in areas where it carried out counter-insurgency operations, the army said in a statement.

On the same day, Raheel visited a UAE-funded hospital in Swat and thanked the UAE and its leadership for contributing to the area's development. UAE Ambassador to Pakistan Essa Abdulla Al Basha Al Noaimi and the director of the UAE Pakistan Assistance Programme, Abdullah Al Ghefeli, were present at the occasion.

Raheel also visited an under-construction Army Public School.

Faith in the military

Pakistanis from all walks of life hailed the coming cantonment as a guarantor of security and growth in Swat. It will restore public confidence after years of terrorism, KP Governor Jhagra said during the cornerstone laying ceremony.

The initiative will also guarantee peace in the valley, Chief Minister Khattak told Pakistan Forward.

Restoration of peace will promote tourism and revive hotels that saw their business vanish in 2007-2009, Jaffar Shah, the Awami National Party-affiliated member representing Swat in the KP Provincial Assembly, told Pakistan Forward.

"If we had had an army base earlier, the terrorists would not have shattered the peaceful, culturally rich society of Swat," Swat-based women's rights activist Nelum Khan told Pakistan Forward.

Having a strong security base will counter fanatics and bar dangerous outsiders from wrecking Swat's peaceful life, local political leader Dolat Khan said, agreeing with Nelum that Swat could have benefited from a cantonment earlier.

"We will never accept being held hostage by a few extremists," he said. "Our military will take care of them now."

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