It’s frustration, not defection

There were reports recently of young men from Chitral joining the Afghan National Army. But there is a reason why they are forced to do this.

After its accession to Pakistan in 1947 Chitral should have been made part of the Federally Administered Northern Areas of Pakistan. Chitral has strong cultural and linguistic links with the Northern Areas, which are now the province of Gilgit-Baltistan.

For a large number of people Pakistan Chitral is part of the former Northern Areas. What too many people do not know is that Chitral is a district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, and situated in Malakand Division of the province.

People would be surprised to know that Chitral’s education level is higher than the national average, especially where female education is concerned. Spread over 14,800 sq km, Chitral is one of the largest districts of the country, and, with the modes of transportation still remaining backward, travel from the south to the north of Chitral can take four exhausting days.

It is this continuing backwardness of the area, among a host of other factors, which discourages its younger people to the extent that some of them are even prepared to join the Afghan army.

Once illiteracy used to be the reason for unemployment in Chitral. With the rise of literacy we face a far more serious situation. Most unemployed youth of Chitral today are all literate or even educated.

They are consequently far more frustrated now at their unemployment. One consequent result of the frustration is the alarming increase in cases of young girls who have received education committing suicide by jumping into the Chitral River.

Equally frustrated are parents who have spent a great deal of money on their children’s education, without receiving any returns for it. “My son refuses to pick up the spade and shovel. “He says he is now educated,” says a farmer in Mastuj.

“But there is no job for him.” In other words, on the one hand the farmer can no longer have his son’s help in tilling the field, and on the other, despite his education, the young man cannot find employment.

The educated youth of Chitral are active on the internet, particularly on Facebook. They use these to their social and business advantage. Many have become tour guides and tour operators. One such person is Imran Shah from Ayun village.

Through his beautiful photographs, and the description of the places that he has visited, he has marketed Chitral and Pakistan abroad far better than the most established tour operators in the country do.

Imran cannot understand why our government and army are so hell-bent upon stopping tourists to his peaceful and scenic Chitral. He has no work as tour guide.

Chitral’s being part of Malakand Division is working to the disadvantage of this region. When the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government and the Pakistani army places restrictions on the visit of foreigners to Malakand Division it made no difference to the people living in the other parts of the division, such as Bajaur, Mohmand, Dir, Malakand Agency and Swat.

But it has made a huge difference to people in Chitral where hotels, tour operators, jeep drivers, shopkeepers, guides and porters have lost a major slice of their business. It is almost as if this law were meant to further damage the backward economy of Chitral.

The government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa requires foreigners seeking to visit Chitral to get an NOC first. This is something which can only discourage potential tourists, particularly those who have limited time at their disposal.

I applied for the NOC for tourist Christopher Candland and his wife to the provincial home department via the Tourism Department of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The Tourism Department forwarded the application on July 10. It is August 4 as I write this and I am yet to hear from either department.

The Candlands gave up the idea of visiting Chitral and it is almost impossible they will suggest Chitral as a tourist destination to intending tourists they know.

Two months ago, Brian Fawcett came to Chitral to initiate 22 development projects, but – despite his possession of an NOC and other helpful documents – he was not allowed to enter the intended project areas. Imagine the number of Chitrali youths the projects could have benefited.

So why should we be surprised if our youth are crossing the porous border into Afghanistan in search of jobs?

Let us not overreact to this situation, however. There is no need for police in Chitral to raid the homes of the 15 young men who allegedly joined the Afghan army, for no reason other than their need to support their families.

Chitralis are patriotic Pakistanis. It is precisely because of the patriotism of Chitral’s inhabitants that there has been no trouble in the district despite its long border with Afghanistan, which remains open throughout the year.

Until a few years ago Chitralis were cut off by snowdrifts from the rest of the country for five months of winter each year and were forced to use a route through Afghanistan in the absence of the Lowari Tunnel, which is still under construction.

In any case, establishment of the Afghan National Army by the government of Afghanistan is merely a non-serious effort to appease the Americans. The ANA stops young people on the street to offer them recruitment.

Boys as young as 14 years are seen awkwardly attired in army uniforms. After enrolment in the army, a soldier could be on leave for weeks (or even months) at a time, but will continue to receive the pay cheque regularly. It is just numbers the Afghan government is interested in.

The thing to do is to help the youths of Chitral to find jobs in their own district. The Corps Commander at Peshawar recently passed an order under which young men living along the border with Afghanistan, like the Boroghil Pass, will be given priority over others in recruitment in Chitral Scouts.

Chitral Scouts is, like the army in the rest of Pakistan, the biggest employer. What the corps commander has ordered is the best way to keep our youth inside Chitral and also keep Pakistan’s border secured.

What he should also do is to order the lifting of restrictions imposed at the Dargai check-post for foreign tourists entering Chitral.

The result of this will be that youths in Chitral will no longer have to risk their lives in Afghanistan merely to provide food to their families.

Siraj Ulmulk, The news