February issue 2009
Residents of Mingora often wake up to find bodies of those executed by the militants slung from electric poles in the town’s central square in the full view of the military, with a note of warning not to remove them till midday. Some 28 people, most of them women, have been executed over the past few months and their bodies thrown in the square which is now known as ‘Zibahkhana Chowk,’ or Slaughter Square.
Bakht Zeba, a former member of Swat district council, virtually signed her death warrant when she criticised the Taliban for preventing girls from attending school. On November.26, masked gunmen dragged her out of her house in the Mulakabad area of Mingora, brutally thrashing her before shooting her in the head. Her body lay there for several hours.
Zeba, who also ran an NGO, was made an example of, for daring to defy the militants. She was yet another victim of the Taliban reign of terror, which has swept the scenic Swat valley. Educated women like Zeba are being particularly targeted. “For a woman, even to come out of her house is considered a crime by the militants,” says Sarfraz Khan, a professor at Peshawar University, who comes from a village in the restive area.
Executions and public beheadings of government officials, soldiers, alleged spies and criminals are frequently used by the militants to terrorise the population into submission.
The rising Taliban influence in one of the most progressive and culturally rich, former princely states, comes as a serious blow to Pakistan’s battle against militancy. More people have been killed in Swat by the militants than in Gaza by Israeli forces. An estimated 1,500 people have, so far, perished in the fighting raging for the past 18 months.
Pakistani army troops deployed in the area have failed to stop the rampaging Taliban, who now control a large swath of 5,337 square kilometres in the valley, less than 200 miles from Islamabad. The militants established their own courts to dispense ‘Islamic justice,’ as the government’s control faltered.
Watching television, singing and dancing, shaving beards and allowing girls to attend school have all been proscribed as un-Islamic activities. “Anyone resisting them is punished with death,” says Zubair Toorwali, an official of an NGO, who fled his home in the Madian district of Swat, following threats from the militants.
The names of those who have already been executed by the Taliban for violating their decrees and those they plan to kill next, are regularly broadcast on their FM radio, which is used by the militants as a tool for spreading fear among the population. Every night, terrified residents listen to the transmission to find out if any of their kin are on the dreaded list.
Among those slain recently was a local dancer known as Shabana. Her body was dumped in the square, after she was brutally murdered. “She deserved death for her immoral character,” proclaimed the Taliban radio.
People are commonly killed for not complying with a retrogressive code of conduct prescribed by the Taliban. Amjad Islam, a school teacher in Mingora, was shot dead for refusing to pull up his shalwar above his ankle, which the militants believed was against the Shariah.
All educational institutions, in the region have been shut down after the Taliban banned girls’ education declaring it to be un-Islamic. Parents were warned of dire consequences if the restriction was flouted.
“Female education is against Islamic teachings and spreads vulgarity in society,” declared Shah Dauran, a Taliban spokesman, in his daily broadcast on radio.
Militants have blown up more than 185 schools since the start of the army operation last year. This has affected at least 80,000 female students and thrown some 8,000 female teachers in unemployment. “We don’t have any future,” says Mah Gul, a female school teacher who now lives in Peshawar. The violence has forced some 300,000 people to leave their homes. “There is no one left in my village, except for the Taliban,” says Sarfraz Khan, another local.
Senior government officials concede that the writ of the state has completely broken down, as a large number of police officers and local officials have left their jobs for fear of their lives. Seventy police officers have been killed — most of them beheaded — by militants, last year alone. Their decapitated bodies were exhibited to inculcate fear among others. In some cases, police and local government officials place advertisements in local newspapers, renouncing their jobs. “It is the only way a man can save his family’s and his own life,” remarks a police officer, who deserted his post recently and is now residing in Peshawar.
At least 800 policemen — half the strength of the district police force — have deserted their posts. So deep is the fear of the Taliban that all 600 police commandos, specially trained by the military to serve in Swat, refused to join their duty this month. Clinics and hospitals have been closed down because of the refusal of doctors and paramilitary staff to serve in the affected areas. “The absence of a government has provided an open field to the militants,” says Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of the province.
Unlike the remote semi-autonomous tribal region, Swat, with a population of 1.3 million, is a part of the NWFP which is governed by a coalition government led by the ANP. But the government seems to have abdicated its responsibility to the militants. Most of the local nazims and members of the national and provincial assemblies have fled the area, leaving the local population at the mercy of the marauders. A provincial assembly member of the ANP, last month in an advertisement in a local newspaper, thanked the Taliban for sparing his life. Afzal Khan, a veteran politician, is the only one to have stayed in his village, despite several assassination attempts on his life.
The federal government also seems to have little understanding of the unfolding situation and the threat to national security posed by the rising militancy. There is no coherent policy to deal with the worsening situation in Swat and other parts of the NWFP. No federal or provincial government leader has bothered to visit the troubled area, further fuelling the demoralisation among the people.
Islamabad sent thousands of troops at the end of 2007 to quell the insurgency led by Maulana Fazlullah, a fiery Wahhabi cleric, also known as Mullah Radio for his sermons on FM radio. The long-haired, 33-year-old cleric started out as a preacher a few years ago, but gained huge popularity among the local population with his powerful speeches, broadcast from his illegal radio station. Subsequently, he raised a militant force to wage a holy war against the Pakistani state.
Fazlullah is now a senior leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an outlawed militant outfit led by Baitullah Mehsud, the most wanted militant commander operating from his base in South Waziristan’s tribal region. Mehsud has also been accused of masterminding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.
The Taliban have extended their influence not only in the tribal areas, but also some parts of the NWFP. Even though Swat does not border Afghanistan, Fazlullah pledges his allegiance to Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Afghan Taliban movement. The militants have also won the support of the poor farmers of Swat by redistributing lands seized from the big landlords among them.
Last week, Fazlullah, in a radio broadcast, announced a list of 43 people, including federal and provincial ministers and members of parliament, who he ordered to appear before his Islamic court. “They will face trial and be punished for working against Islam,” the cleric told his supporters.
According to security officials, a large number of Mehsud’s men from Waziristan, along with Uzbeks and Chechens, have joined the militant forces in Swat. And some 6,000 to 8,000 highly trained and well-armed militants are engaged in fighting the government forces. They maintain that the insurgents are being funded by some Saudi and Arab charity groups.
A large number of fighters belonging to banned militant outfits like Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have also joined the new jihad. According to a provincial government official, most of them are battle-hardened, having fought in Kashmir and Afghanistan. “This has created a very dangerous situation,” remarks a security official.
Eighteen months of military operation has produced little results. The army achieved some significant successes last year, when they pushed out the militants from most of the areas, but an ill-fated peace deal signed by the provincial government allowed the militants to regroup and return to the area. Local residents blame the army for looking the other way as the militants continue to operate with impunity. “The troops remain inside their camps while the militants freely move around,” says Sher Mohammed, a senior lawyer from Swat.
The scepticism regarding the military’s role is widespread. The rise of the Taliban amid a large army presence has fuelled suspicion that the soldiers lack the will to fight. Local residents complain that indiscriminate artillery fire by the troops has killed more civilians than militants.
A military spokesman maintains that these allegations are unjustified as hundreds of soldiers have died fighting militants. Senior army officers blame the provincial government for the worsening situation. “How can a military operation work, when there is no government in the area?” says a senior military official.
However, military officials concede that there was a need for putting in place a new strategy to reach out to the population. As part of this new strategy, some additional troops are being deployed in the affected areas. “The troops have been ordered to take a more proactive approach,” says Major General Athar Abbas, the chief military spokesman. “It will be a protracted battle.”
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The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.