November Issue 2007
Valley of Fear
Recent fighting in the scenic Swat valley left scores of paramilitary soldiers, militants and civilians dead before an uncertain ceasefire took hold on October 29. It was followed by another round of fighting that claimed more lives, displaced thousands of Swatis and destroyed livelihoods.
Subsequently, a government-convened, 87-member jirga comprising notables, clerics and representatives of political parties met caretaker chief minister Shamsul Mulk in Peshawar and decided to launch a peace initiative of its own. Selected members of the jirga held talks with leaders of the militants, commonly known as the Taliban, in Swat. An all-parties conference organized by the Jamaat-i-Islami in Chakdara, sited at the confluence of two rivers and also of Swat and Dir Lower districts and Malakand Agency, formed its own jirga to hold talks with the militants’ leader Maulana Fazlullah. These contacts yielded some results and led to the reopening of roads to Khwazakhela, Matta and other places controlled by the militants and resulted in the release of 168 soldiers belonging to the Frontier Corps, Frontier Constabulary and Frontier Police.
The militants showed their muscle by parading 48 paramilitary soldiers, all Pashtuns, before their release in Charbagh village, located on the main Mingora-Kalam road. They gave each of them a pair of shalwar kameez and Rs 500 before letting them go. All of them said they were resigning from service and would never fight fellow Muslims and Pashtuns again. The freed soldiers said they surrendered after coming under siege and running out of ammunition and other supplies.
The militants later freed another 120 paramilitary soldiers and four policemen in Matta. On the request of the soldiers, the militants didn’t invite the media to film or interview them. The soldiers argued that such footage would bring disgrace to them and their families. With their surrender, the police stations at Matta and Khwazakhela fell into the hands of militants and all other government institutions ceased to function. The government’s writ no longer runs in Charbagh, Khwazakhela and Matta areas and most of Kabal sub-division too is now in control of the militants.
Though the roads to Khwazakhela and Matta have now reopened and bazaars are functioning, there was apprehension everywhere that violence could resume due to the simple fact that the issues that triggered the clashes have yet to be resolved. The militants have set up their own roadside checkpoints where vehicles are searched and suspects are hauled up. Armed militants carry out patrols and many people now approach them to seek justice in cases ranging from thefts to murder. Swat has been effectively carved up into two parts with the upper portion of the valley, except Madyan, Bahrain and Kalam, in militants’ hands and the low-lying places, including the twin towns of Mingora and Saidu Sharif, in government hands. The militants and troops based in the Frontier Constabulary training centre at Kanju, Saidu Sharif airport and Fizzaghat on the outskirts of Mingora have been exchanging fire now that the areas under their respective control are easily discernible. The militants recently killed two paramilitary soldiers deployed at the Saidu Sharif airport, which has remained closed for the last few years due to PIA’s decision not to fly on this uneconomical route. The troops in turn killed and injured a few people while using artillery and mortar guns to shell suspected hideouts of the militants.
Though the imposition of emergency by General Pervez Musharraf was primarily aimed at pre-empting an adverse decision by the Supreme Court against him for holding the dual offices of president and army chief, most people in Swat believe it will lead to a military operation by the Pakistan Army against the militants. They fear there will be bloodshed and displacement of villagers once the government sends regular troops to evict the militants and reassert its writ. The retreat and surrender of paramilitary troops and beheadings of soldiers carried out by the militants have put pressure on the government and the army to act decisively against Maulana Fazlullah and his Taliban. Intelligence agencies are also reporting the presence of outsiders in the ranks of militants and there is a strong belief among government circles that Fazlullah is no longer in effective command of all the fighters active in Swat.
The death toll in the fighting to date has exceeded 100. It would be higher if one were to believe government officials who are claiming that more than 100 rebels have been killed. Military spokesman Major General Waheed Arshad, director general, Inter-Services Public Relations of the Pakistan Army, earlier claimed that up to 60 militants had been killed in the fighting. The army spokesman cited reports by the paramilitary Frontier Corps and the Frontier Police to back up his claim. As usual, no evidence was presented to the media to prove the claim.
The caretaker government in NWFP, which was installed under former technocrat Shamsul Mulk as chief minister when the ruling MMA resigned to protest General Pervez Musharraf’s election as president while still in uniform, has been careful while making claims about casualties suffered by the militants. The NWFP home secretary Badshah Gul Wazir, along with Inspector General of Police, Mohammad Sharif Virk, held a few press conferences in Peshawar following the deployment of an extra 2,500 paramilitary soldiers from the Frontier Corps and Frontier Constabulary to cope with the dangerous situation in Swat. However, they have lately been reluctant to talk to the press. Caretaker chief minister Shamsul Mulk, on the other hand, has consistently spoken about the need to reassert the government’s writ in Swat. He also made it clear that the enforcement of Shariah in Swat and having some sort of peace accord with militants could be considered provided they first lay down their arms.
The federal government until now has taken the stand that the action in Swat had been launched by the NWFP government with help from the centre. The Pakistan Army even objected to a news item that claimed it had become involved in the military operations in Swat and strongly denied the report. However, the use of gunship helicopters operated by the army to attack militants’ positions was clear evidence of the involvement of the Pakistan Army in the military operations in Swat. Long-range artillery guns were also being used to shell the hideouts of the militants in the fertile valley but it wasn’t clear if regular soldiers or paramilitary troops were manning the guns deployed in the Frontier Constabulary training centre near Kanju. Troops from the Frontier Corps, which has officers drawn from the Pakistan Army, are well-trained in using such artillery guns. Along with regular soldiers, they use the artillery guns routinely in Waziristan to shell positions of the militants.
Around 20 paramilitary soldiers, 35 militants and 15 civilians were initially confirmed dead in the fighting. Later, the government claimed 100 rebels have been killed while the militants also insisted that the security forces had suffered higher losses than those conceded by the authorities. Another 55 sustained injuries and they included 14 troops, 20 militants and 23 civilians including two journalists. This was besides the 20 Frontier Constabulary troops who were killed when a vehicle-borne suicide bomber blew up their military truck in Mingora on October 25. In fact, this terrorist attack was the cause of the flare-up in violence and the next day’s bombardment by gunship helicopters on villages where the militants had amassed. The suicide bombing was prompted by the militants’ fear that the deployment of extra troops signalled the start of military operations against them. Also, recently, the militants had staged at least two suicide bombings involving four young men targeting Pakistan Army troops that were being deployed in Swat. These troops haven’t undertaken any action yet but they are available as backup at Kabal near Mingora. Soldiers have also been deployed in Timergarha in the Lower Dir district adjoining Swat and Bajaur Agency, both hotbeds of militancy and home to members of the banned Islamic group, Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM).
The TNSM’s role in the ongoing crisis is intriguing. Its founder Maulana Sufi Mohammad, who happens to be the father-in-law of Maulana Fazlullah, has distanced himself from the happenings in Swat and expelled Fazlullah from his organization. The latter, however, is insisting that he is still part of the TNSM and has been citing support for his cause among the Swati cadres of the organisation as evidence that he cannot be expelled. Sufi Mohammad has been in jail for the last six years in Dera Ismail Khan and has refused to apply for bail. He was arrested after returning from Afghanistan, where he headed a group of more than 10,000 armed men to fight for the Taliban against the invading US forces and its allies from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Fazlullah too was part of the Sufi Mohammad-led lashkar which lost an unspecified number of men in the fighting, while many others were captured and subsequently freed after paying huge amounts as ransom to Afghan warlords. Fazlullah spent 15 months in the Central Prison, Dera Ismail Khan, with his ageing father-in-law before being released on bail.
Another relevant question is the hold of Fazlullah and his two shuras (councils), one comprising clerics and the other local notables, over the different band of fighters, collectively known as the Taliban or mujahideen in Swat and armed generally with the ubiquitous Kalashnikovs and in some cases with rocket-launchers, RPG-7 rockets and other sophisticated weapons. Some of these fighters appear disciplined and under the command of Fazlullah and his deputies, such as Maulana Shah Dowran, Sirajuddin and Muslim Khan. But there are many others who call themselves Tehrik Islamia Taliban and are more radical and inflexible in their approach. A CD produced by this organisation shows a man reading from a text with the kalima inscribed on a black banner in the background. His face is covered as he talks in his Pashto-accented Urdu with an AK-47 rifle placed near him. He provides figures about the attacks, including suicide bombings, undertaken by his group in Swat and elsewhere in Pakistan and threatens to strike again against the enemies of Islam and friends of the US. He claims that scores of suicide bombers are waiting for their turn to launch attacks. General Musharraf is described as someone who has abandoned Islam due to his support for America and is liable to be killed. It is difficult to verify the claims made by this unidentified man but the CD makes it clear that he belongs to a group that has nominal association with Fazlullah and could ditch him in case he takes a course different from theirs.
The rift in the militants’ ranks became obvious when Fazlullah and his associates dissociated themselves from those involved in beheadings of about a dozen men in Matta and eight others in Charbagh. Some of the cops who were beheaded belonged to Swat and this crime could trigger blood-feuds that may continue for a long time owing to the Pashtuns’ urge for avenging murders and restoring their honour. One of his deputies, Maulana Mohammad Ali Shah Niddar, went on air on their illegal FM radio channel on October 30 to declare that the men who committed the crime of beheadings were criminals and would be captured and punished. The channel, like many others in Swat, is still broadcasting programmes under the pretext that the PEMRA Ordinance isn’t applicable to the former Malakand division. The government is still considering ways and means, including technological intervention, to stop these broadcasts.
The temporary ceasefire appeared to have broken down on October 31 when gunship helicopters resumed bombing of suspected hideouts of the militants in Charbagh, Ningolai and Matta. There was no announcement that the ceasefire had ended. In any case, the security forces had not committed publicly to the ceasefire. The government appeared to have unofficially accepted the ceasefire to enable it to retrieve bodies of paramilitary troops left in the areas controlled by the militants. This gave the militants breathing space to bury their dead and shift the wounded to hospitals.
Villagers trapped in the fighting zone also took advantage of the ceasefire to shift to safer places. Hundreds of people were displaced and crops ready for harvest and threshing had to be abandoned in the fields. Swat’s economy, heavily dependent on tourism, suffered blows due to the fighting. Those affected were left cursing both the militants for bringing suffering on the Swatis due to their reckless armed agitation for enforcement of Shariah and the government for its failure to resolve the political and judicial issues that had been lingering for years. The affectees were also unable to comprehend the government’s weakness in extending protection to the population from the militants bent upon imposing their will on the people.
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.