Change of plan Ministry wants garrison in Dir, not Swat

Ameer Haider Khan Hoti
Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti

PESHAWAR: The defence ministry is likely to abandon its plan to set up a cantonment in Swat district as it now wants to acquire land for the purpose in Lower Dir district adjacent to Afghan border, it is learnt.

Currently, paramilitary troops, including Dir Scouts, have permanent presence in Upper and Lower Dir districts.Sources told Dawn on Saturday that the ministry bosses had recently contacted Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti about construction of a cantonment in Lower Dir instead of Swat, where currently military troops had a sufficient presence.When contacted, the chief minister said the ministry had yet to identify locations where land was to be acquired for the garrison.

“This is true that the military wants to set up cantonments in Malakand division, but exact area has not been identified so far,” he told Dawn when asked about the shifting of the proposed cantonment from Swat to Lower Dir.A source privy to a recent meeting between the chief minister and a delegation from Khwazakhela, Swat disclosed that Mr Hoti told elders that the defence ministry had proposed to provide land for the purpose in Lower Dir.

The source said the military authorities had identified around 300 kanals of land in Khwazakhela area, where the army had established temporary headquarters for setting up a cantonment.The local residents have already opposed establishment of a garrison in Khwazakhela and conveyed their reservations to the chief minister through their MPAs.The federal government at the request of Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal government had dispatched regular army to Swat in late 2007 to flush out armed supporters of Mullah Fazlullah and restore the state’s writ in the valley.

Following the decisive military action against militants in the area in May 2009, the army had planned to station regular troops there permanently. Initially, it was decided to set up cantonments in Matta, Kabal and adjacent Shangla district.The officials claimed that local people supported establishment of a cantonment in Swat and the provincial government had agreed to provide land for the plan.They added that the army was waiting for the release of funds from the federal government for the purpose.

When approached, security analyst Brigadier (r) Mahmood Shah said initially, a proposal was under consideration to keep at least one brigade permanently in Swat for which the army needed infrastructure.“The army seems to have changed its plans. Initially, it proposed to set up a cantonment in Swat to secure Karakoram Highway linking Pakistan with China. At that time, there were Indian concerns. Now, it seems that the focus is to thwart cross-border incursions from the western borders. Lower Dir’s location is important,” he said.

The frequent incursions from the Afghan territory have also disturbed ties between Islamabad and Kabul.After successful operation in Malakand division, the government claimed that Fazlullah supporters and other militant groups had established sanctuaries in Kunar and Noristan provinces of Afghanistan from where they carried out attacks against troops in Lower Dir, Upper Dir and Chitral districts. – Dawn