December Issue 2014
Trouble in Paradise
Peace activists in Swat are feeling vulnerable and insecure yet again, as 16 people, including two policemen on security duty with pro-government peace committee members, have been killed in targeted shootings this year.
Due to its scenic beauty enhanced by the majestic Swat River, pleasant weather, thick pine forests and magnificent lakes, Swat is fondly referred to as the ‘Switzerland of Asia.’ However, this beautiful valley became a dangerous place due to militancy that peaked between 2006 and 2009.
As a result of the successful military operation Rah-e-Rast that secured not only Swat, but also the rest of Malakand division in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in May 2009, the militants loyal to the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) led by Maulana Fazlullah, were expelled and forced to escape to neighbouring Afghanistan.
Since then, a number of steps have been taken to strengthen the police force and the civil administration to prevent the return of a situation similar to the one that prevailed in Swat during the peak of the Taliban insurgency.
The strength of the police force in Swat tripled in numbers from 7,000 in 2008 to more than 21,000. The number of police stations also increased from 39 to 76. The Swat Police is now better equipped after having received light and heavy machine-guns, rocket-propelled grenades and bullet-proof vests and helmets. More than 7,000 policemen have received specialised training. This includes anti-terrorism training imparted to 390 police officers at the Pakistan Army’s National Counter Terrorism Centre in Kharian.
However, attacks on the people working with the two peace committees, the largely independent Swat Qaumi Jirga and the pro-government Swat Aman Committee, have continued during the past few years. As many as 17 peace committee workers were killed and two were left injured in 14 targeted attacks in 2013. A policeman on security duty with a peace committee member was also killed in a targeted attack.
Swat Qaumi Jirga member Zahid Khan, who was severely injured when a target killer shot him in Mingora in October 2012, told Newsline that he received many threats during the militants’ rule in Swat, but had never felt as insecure as he does now, despite the defeat of the TTP in the region.
“I was not afraid of the threatening calls from the Taliban at that time,” he said. “I still receive such phone calls from unknown people and this worries me as our forces claim to have restored peace in Swat. It is not peaceful, at least not for the peace workers.”
The grey-bearded Khan added that the overall security had undoubtedly improved, but the militants had changed their strategy.
“The few militants still present in Swat now target unarmed peace committee members,” he explained. “The attacks are almost always similar in nature: Using a 9mm pistol, a shooter aims at the head of the target in broad daylight in a busy place before escaping into a side street.”
Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, Malakand range, Abdullah Khan agreed that the remnants of the militants in Swat found the peace workers a soft target. However, there were also other factors behind the targeting of peace activists.
“Our investigation revealed that only four out of the 17 peace-committee members killed last year were targeted by the militants,” he added. “The others were killed due to personal enmities, land ownership issues, money matters or family disputes.”
Certain sections of the public believe that the security forces and law-enforcement agencies are not doing enough to tackle the growing issue of targeted killing.
Idrees Khan, a member of the pro-government Swat Aman Committee, said he had lost hope in the ability and interest of the security agencies and the provincial government in putting an end to targeted assassinations in Swat.
“I don’t know if the government, the police and other security agencies are taking this issue seriously,” he said. “Our political leaders and government officials don’t even go to the funerals of the slain peace activists. What else should we expect from them?”
However, DIG Police Abdullah Khan argued that the government was fully supporting the Swat Police in its efforts to tackle the militants. “We are breathing down the necks of the small militant gangs. We have arrested a number of suspects, including three masterminds of the attacks. They have confessed to their involvement in five cases of target killings. We have also arrested persons who were involved in terrorism activities in Karachi and in the attack on Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Amir Muqam Khan,” he added.
On the other hand, the head of the Swat Qaumi Jirga, Mukhtiar Khan Yousafzai questioned these claims. He pointed out that none of the suspects were made known to the public or the families of the victims.
“Our jirga member Muzaffar Ali Khan and 11 members of his family were assassinated by target killers,” he said. “His only son, who is still alive, has yet to know the identity of the killers. He, too, is receiving death threats.”
Mukhtiar Yousafzai alleged that the Swat Police was not independent enough to do things entirely on its own, as the army was the dominant force in the Malakand division. “The police cannot do things until the army approves it. The army should take the target killings seriously and deal with them harshly or let the police take the lead,” he demanded.
Yousafzai added that most of the targeted attacks took place in the proximity of army checkpoints or police stations and that is why many in Swat were questioning the response of the security forces and the law-enforcement agencies. “It is strange that the killers are always able to escape unhurt despite the presence of the security forces in nearby places. How do such things happen?” he asked.
Countering this argument, Swat-based Colonel Aqeel Ahmad Malik of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) said security forces were still in the process of building the capacity of the local administration.
“The Pakistan Army has fought hard to cleanse Swat of militancy,” he argued. “We have achieved this goal and there is no way the militants can return to the region. The army will go on the back foot and let the civil administration take the lead when it is capable of doing so.”
Colonel Malik added that the army was providing full support to the Swat Police in tracking down persons involved in the target killings. “We have helped the police in busting the militant gangs in Swat. We share relevant information and intelligence leads with the law-enforcing agencies in our effort to make Swat terror-free,” he said.
Abdullah Khan, the DIG Police, echoed Colonel Aqeel Malik’s words and added that the Swat Police was capable of dealing with persons who challenged the writ of the state. “Each man in my force is highly motivated. It is our duty to protect our people and we will do so at all costs,” he stressed.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue
Arshad Yusufzai has worked for Voice of America and has published in The News International and Central Asia Online.