January issue 2009
Swat is presently the most violent place in Pakistan. And the militants operating in the valley are more intolerant and dangerous than all the other Pakistani Taliban and jihadis found in the NWFP and rest of the country.
Nowhere else have the militants resorted to so much violence as in Swat. The Swati Taliban have assassinated their political opponents and destroyed their homes, beheaded personnel of the security forces and carried out suicide bombings. They have been regularly bombing schools, particularly the ones for girls, with the tally of demolished educational institutions in Swat now exceeding 130. They have also bombed bridges, government buildings, health outlets, hotels and electricity and gas installations. Anything and everything connected with the government and the military is considered a fair target by the militants and is attacked. The fear inspired by the militants is so great that Swat’s two National Assembly and seven NWFP assembly members, most nazims, top politicians and a number of serving and retired government officers have abandoned their homes and villages and shifted to Peshawar, Islamabad and other places down-country. Security forces personnel keep out of Taliban-infested areas, police stations are locked after dark and cops can no longer conduct patrols. Many police officers have given up their jobs and government officials posted in Swat are forever seeking transfers to get out of the district. The administration is paralysed, the economy has been irretrievably damaged and the educational system lies in ruin.
Until some months ago, the twin towns of Mingora and Saidu Sharif, the district headquarters of Swat, were considered relatively safe. As the seat of government and the centre of operations of the security forces, Saidu Sharif and Mingora were somehow seen as beyond the reach of the militants. Not any more. The Taliban now strike at will in both localities, assassinating political rivals in the bazaars in daylight and knocking at the doors of marked men at night.
Pesh imams, or prayer leaders, at mosques are ordered to give specific sermons, schools still functioning are required to adhere to the dress code, and sometimes the syllabus is dictated by the militants and tenants are under orders not to give the produce of agricultural land and orchards to landlords who are disliked by the Taliban. In short, the government’s writ is limited and weakening while that of the militants is spreading.
The Taliban in Swat are different because most of them aren’t Taliban in the real sense. Many of them haven’t studied in madrassas and some were once associated with jihadi groups, such as Jaish-i-Mohammad. Some have joined the militants’ ranks to settle scores with the Khans, or feudals, of Swat and take possession of their property. As the black-turbaned followers of the ageing Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the Swati Taliban were once members of the Tanzeem Nifaz Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM), which had waged an armed struggle in 1994-95 for the enforcement of Shariah in Malakand division, which included Swat. But then a split occurred in the TNSM and Sufi Mohammad’s son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah formed his own radical group and aligned it with Baitullah Mehsud’s Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Despite being only 33 years old, Fazlullah has fought in Afghanistan alongside the Afghan Taliban against the US and its Northern Alliance allies and suffered imprisonment in Dera Ismail Khan. Along with his father-in-law Sufi Mohammad, he and several other TNSM activists were detained and kept in jail after returning from Afghanistan where they had taken almost 10,000 ill-equipped but spirited fighters to wage jihad against the combined might of the US and other western powers. Needless to say, many of those fighters from Swat and the rest of Malakand region were killed or captured and some are still listed as missing.
Maulana Fazlullah, or Radio Mullah as he came to be known for making extensive use of his illegal FM radio channel to spread his religious, social and political messages, is now in hiding. But he has never left Swat and is believed to be staying in one of his hideouts in the Matta area, where the government’s writ doesn’t run beyond the Pakistan Army’s roadside checkpoint at Vennai village. Since going underground he has addressed a press conference in Kabal tehsil, another stronghold of militants. Occasionally, he is heard speaking on his FM radio programme. His deputy, Maulana Shah Dauran, is a more frequent speaker on the radio during their daily night-time broadcasts, hurling threats at those who don’t comply with the Taliban’s decrees and announcing fresh curbs on the people. It was Shah Dauran who recently declared a ban on girls’ education in Swat from January 15 and claimed responsibility for the December 28 suicide bombing at a polling station during a National Assembly by-election in Shalbandai village in Buner district that killed 43 people, including four children and two policemen. This was the last terrorist attack in Pakistan in 2008 and it targeted, according to Shah Dauran, those who had on August 13 last year killed six Taliban members who were found out in the hills above Shalbandai village. The Taliban revenge exacted a heavy toll and sent a strong message to those who were gradually showing courage in challenging the militants by raising tribal lashkars, or armed forces and village defence committees to fight the militants.
The military operations in Swat are continuing but the Taliban, despite suffering losses, are far from defeated. Military authorities claim that more than 90% of the territory in Swat valley has been cleared of militants. However, the situation on the ground tells a different story, as the government’s control doesn’t run beyond some towns and villages. Off the main roads and in the rural and mountainous areas of Matta, Charbagh, Khwazakhela, Kabal and Malam Jabba, the Taliban hold sway. Anybody daring to challenge them risks losing life and property. The current tense relations between India and Pakistan have caused a slowdown in military action in Swat as some troops, mostly from the adjoining Shangla district, had to be pulled out for deployment on the Indian border. Rotation of troops is also taking place, shifting the focus of attention away from pursuing military goals in the region.
More worrying, however, is the growing disillusionment of the ANP-led coalition government in the NWFP with the direction and effectiveness of the military operations in Swat. Until now the ANP leaders and ministers, along with some from their coalition partner, the PPP, used to complain privately and in party meetings that the security forces weren’t going after the militants in an effective manner and were instead causing civilian casualties. But after a recent provincial cabinet meeting, the ANP-PPP coalition government publicly voiced its reservations over the thrust of the military operations in Swat and demanded a more focused strategy against the militants. Military authorities obviously differ with this assessment. They claim that the Operation Rah-i-Haq in Swat has scored many achievements and is making headway. Restraint shown by the military, according to its commanders, on certain occasions was due to its policy to avoid civilian losses.
Operation Rah-i-Haq is now in its second phase. It was launched on July 29 after the collapse of the May 21 peace accord between the Swati Taliban and the NWFP government. The first phase of the operation began in early November 2007. However, it was halted when the nationalist ANP, which came into power by raising the slogan of peace in the February 2008 general elections, entered into peace talks with the Swati militants. Earlier in October 2007, the Frontier Corps backed by the Frontier Constabulary had launched its own operation against the militants in Swat. But the operation faltered and regular troops supported by gunship helicopters and jet-fighters were sent in to defeat the Taliban. A stage came when 25,000 troops using long-range artillery and warplanes were fighting the militants.
However, the situation kept deteriorating and now a military victory in Swat is out of sight. The rift between the ruling political parties and the army on the direction of the military operations is likely to demoralise the ranks of the law-enforcement agencies and all those opposed to the militants. Efforts by the security forces to raise lashkars against the militants haven’t worked in Swat. The violent end of Pir Samiullah, whose body was exhumed by militants and hanged before being reburied, for daring to raise a lashkar against them would certainly scare away other anti-Taliban forces. The ruling ANP has offered fresh peace talks to the militants provided they agree to lay down their guns and distance themselves from the Baitullah Mehsud-led TTP. But the Taliban would never agree to disarm and disassociate themselves from the TTP as it provides them strength through reinforcement of fighters and resources in times of need. With neither side capable of scoring an outright military victory and very few chances of clinching a new peace agreement, it appears certain that Swat will remain in turmoil for the foreseeable future. As such, the human costs will continue to rise: its hapless residents are likely to suffer more bloodshed, displacement and barbarism.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.