February issue 2009
Valley of Death
“Why doesn’t the government drop an atom bomb and kill all of us. Then it could keep whatever is left of Swat,” declared an angry Swati man in a desperate phone call from Charbagh village in the valley. He was among the thousands of villagers who were preparing to move out of Charbagh and the adjoining Gulbagh area to escape the shelling by the Pakistan Army’s artillery guns and the bombing by gunship helicopters.
His statement echoed the feelings of other civilians who were forced to abandon their hearths and homes and were heading uncertainly toward Swat’s principal towns, Mingora and Saidu Sharif. There was no guarantee they would find refuge somewhere and were worried about their belongings, including cattle, in their abandoned homes. Old people, some being carried by young men on their backs, and frightened children had to walk through the fields and across the hills as the roads were blocked by security forces after the imposition of a round-the-clock curfew. As usual, the government wasn’t prepared to receive this new wave of Internally Displaced People (IDPs). The battle for hearts and minds was being lost due to the state’s inability to cater to the needs of the displaced villagers.
The military for its part was hard-pressed to avoid civilian casualties and at the same time uproot the Maulana Fazlullah-led militants from their well-entrenched positions in the village, located close to Mingora and Saidu Sharif. The Taliban militants had started threatening residents of the twin towns and used to openly patrol the streets after sunset, killing opponents and dumping their bodies at public places such as Mingora’s Green Chowk, known as the ‘Khooni Chowk’ or Bloody Square. There was bound to be ‘collateral damage’ in the densely-populated Swat valley as the troops tried to push back the militants by shelling and bombing their positions before moving forward to take control of Sanghota, Manglawar, Charbagh and other villages sited on the right bank of River Swat. Troops were thus moved into villages to carry out house-to-house searches, pick up suspects and set up new military positions. However, the number of civilian deaths was unusually high and was causing a political fallout.
The country’s security forces intensified their operations against the Swati militants in late January after coming under criticism from the country’s media, civil society and political parties. The military high command had to do something as it was being accused of not doing enough to defeat the militants. Even political parties such as the ANP and the PPP, that are part of the ruling coalition, had started expressing reservations over the military action and demanded more focused and targeted operations. The army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani flew out to Swat to give directions to his field commanders as soon as the new military action was started and also held meetings with certain politicians belonging to the ruling ANP to seek their advice and support. Among the invitees to this meeting at the Frontier Constabulary camp in Kanju near Mingora, was the 82-year old Mohammad Afzal Khan, a former minister who has defied the militants by refusing to abandon his village, Kuza Drushkhela, in the Taliban stronghold of Matta.
However, the intensification of the military operation also resulted in civilian casualties and complaints of human rights abuses. Villagers in Ningolai alleged that a number of innocent persons, including teenagers, were apprehended by the troops and shot point-blank to punish residents of villages where the security forces and their convoys were attacked. There were also complaints of people going missing and houses being indiscriminately attacked and destroyed by the military’s artillery guns and gunship helicopters. Thousands of people were displaced while many more couldn’t leave their villages and move to safer places due to the imposition of a curfew by the government, closure of roads and absence of vehicles.
Scores of civilians — the figure being quoted is above 50 — had been killed in the early days of the new military operation. Fleeing villagers claimed they had to leave their dead unburied at homes or had to hurriedly bury them in their courtyards due to the artillery shelling and bombing by gunship helicopters in their villages.
Once again, residents of Mingora, Saidu Sharif and other villages in Swat generously helped the displaced people by offering them food and, in some cases, accommodation. Rice was cooked in daigs and distributed among the fleeing villagers. Most of them preferred to stay with relatives, acquaintances and friends. Not many went to the hopelessly inadequate camps, which were set up in Mingora and Barikot. Many displaced families journeyed to different parts of Malakand, Mardan, Charsadda, Peshawar and even to places outside the NWFP.
From the statements coming from government and military officials, this was going to be a sustained action aimed at defeating the militants. More than 20,000 troops were battling the Taliban, whose strength was estimated at around 5,000. The Taliban leaders, however, claim that their fighting strength is higher. In an earlier military operation, the military had pushed back the militants beyond Matta into the Gat-Peochar and Namal valleys and the idea was to bottle them up before going for the kill. But later, the militants were able to regroup and reenter their previous strongholds in Matta, Khwazakhela, Kabal and Charbagh tehsils. They also gained influence in the Shamozai area toward Malakand Agency.
Their three illegal FM radio channels helped them to spread their message and influence. Some military commanders contend that the May 21, 2008 peace accord that the ANP-PPP coalition government in the NWFP signed with the Swati Taliban gave enough time to the militants to regroup and redeploy. The peace agreement collapsed in July 2008 and a new military operation was launched. However, it failed to dislodge the militants and now the military is in the midst of its third big action in Swat. Its reputation is at stake this time as another failure would be embarrassing, to say the least.
The military, however, would need the cooperation of both the federal and provincial governments to accomplish the mission. Some political work would have to be done to reassure the people in Swat and solve some of their major problems. The demand for enforcement of Shariah in Swat and rest of the Malakand region is old and has been used by the militants to justify their armed struggle. After the 1994 armed revolt by the Maulana Sufi Mohammad-led Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) in Swat and other parts of Malakand division, the secular government of then prime minister Benazir Bhutto and then NWFP chief minister Aftab Sherpao accepted their demand and promulgated the Shariah Ordinance to set up Qazi courts for delivering speedy justice. Subsequently, in 1999, an amended Nizam-i-Adl Ordinance was issued in response to the demand by the Islamic forces in the area.
Now the provincial government of the secular parties, the ANP and the PPP, is preparing to amend the Shariah law and issue it in keeping with the aspirations of the people of Swat and Malakand. This might deprive the militants of their major rallying factor and also resolve some of the difficulties facing the people with regard to their demand for an affordable and speedy judicial system based on Islamic principles. However, it remains to be seen if the militants will be satisfied or if they will demand more. The Swati militants are part of the Baitullah Mehsud-headed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and this proscribed organisation, too, would be influencing events in Swat and its adjoining districts and tribal agencies.
In a bid to blunt some of the criticism directed against the Swati Taliban, Maulana Fazlullah announced a relaxation in the ban on girls’ education imposed by him in the troubled valley. Girls were allowed to attend school up to grade four or if they were aged nine years. He also promised a review of the ban on girls’ education beyond grade four. The relaxation announced by Maulana Fazlullah followed the unprecedented criticism of the Taliban’s decision to ban girls’ education. The Baitullah Mehsud-led TTP had also asked the Swat Taliban to review their decision as it wasn’t its policy to outlaw girls’ education.
The violence in Swat was only one of the worries of the government and the armed forces in the NWFP. In a different part of the province, the Darra Adamkhel chapter of the TTP threatened to kill Polish engineer Peter Stanczak by February.4 if the government didn’t accept their demands. The TTP Darra Adamkhel branch spokesman Muhammad, gave the February 4 deadline for the release of Taliban militants imprisoned in various jails and in the custody of the intelligence agencies, calling for a halt to military operations in the tribal areas, including Darra Adamkhel, Bajaur, Swat and Waziristan. He also warned the US to stop drone attacks, saying the missile strikes were being carried out with the connivance of the Pakistan government.
Polish Engineer Peter Stanczak was working for the Poland National Seismic Survey when he was kidnapped by the Taliban near the Pind Sultani area of Jund in Punjab’s Attock district during fieldwork on September 28, 2008. His driver Inayatullah, guard Muhammad Saleem and public relations officer Riaz were killed by the Taliban on the spot. Earlier, on October 14, 2008, the Taliban militants had issued a videotape in which the Polish engineer appealed to the Pakistani and Polish governments to release him at any cost.
The government is also under pressure to recover other kidnapped foreigners, including Afghanistan’s ambassador-designate to Pakistan, Abdul Khaliq Farahi, an Iranian diplomat and a Chinese engineer. All efforts to recover them until now have failed. Taliban militants are believed to be holding the kidnapped men and there were reports that the TTP head Baitullah Mehsud was demanding the release of his men and some ransom in return for the kidnapped foreigners. In the past also he forced the Pakistan government to free some of his important men in return for the release of kidnapped foreigners and Pakistan Army soldiers.
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.