Has Swat fallen to the Taliban?
By Amir Mir
Wednesday 21 January 2009
LAHORE: Fifteen months after the launching of a military operation in the lush-green picturesque valley of Swat by the Pakistan army to dismantle the militant network of Maulana Fazalullah, a major part of the mountainous region seems to have fallen to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and Swat apparently lives under the Sharia of Fazalullah.
Not too long ago, the idyll Swat valley, with its rolling hills, gushing streams and scenic vistas, was described as Pakistan’s Switzerland. However, ever since the beginning of the military operation in 2007 the law and order situation in Swat has gone from bad to worse, converting this paradise on earth into a valley of death and destruction. Around 10,000 militants of the Tehrik-e-Taliban have been pitted against 15,000 Pakistan army troops since October 22, 2007 when the operation was officially launched. Leading the charge against the Pakistan army is Maulana Fazalullah, who is also known as Mullah Radio for the illegal FM radio channel he operates. Through his FM broadcast that is still operational despite being banned by the NWFP government, Fazalullah keeps inspiring his followers to implement Islamic Shariat, fight the Pakistan army, and establish his authority in the area.
The Pakistani military authorities have repeatedly alleged that Fazalullah, who has thousands of armed followers ready to challenge the security forces on his command, has close links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives. Fazalullah has already become a house hold name in Swat as his Shaheen Commando Force is either destroying or occupying government buildings, blowing up police stations, bridges, basic health units and hotels and setting ablaze girls schools unchecked. Extending the sphere of their activities aimed at enforcing Islamic Shariah, the followers of Fazalullah have directed the local prayer leaders only to focus on the attributes of jehad in their Friday sermons. They have also banned female education in Swat besides asking the parents of grown up girls to marry them to the militants. Fazalullah had issued an edict in December 2008 to close hundreds of schools by January 15.
While following in the footsteps of the former Taliban regime of Afghanistan, the militants of Fazalullah are also pursuing a rigid agenda of religious beliefs which is based on a violent jehadi doctrine. Barbers in Swat and its adjoining districts under have been ordered not to shave beards and shops selling CDs and music cassettes ordered to close down. In some places, just a handful of the militants control a village since they rule by fear - beheading government sympathizers, blowing up bridges and asking women to wear all-encompassing burqas. Similarly, the army is manning several police stations in Swat because the police force there had been decimated by desertions and militant killings. The gravity of the law and order situation can be gauged from the fact that one of the busiest squares in Mingora has been renamed by the shopkeepers as ’Khooni Chowk’ because every morning, as they come to their shops, they would find four or five dead bodies hung over the poles or the trees.
Hundreds of the army jawans as well as civilians have been killed in the ongoing military operation as a result of suicide attacks and roadside bombings. Under these circumstances, the state writ has shrunk from Swat’s 5337square kilometer area to the limits of its regional Mingora headquarters, which is a city of just 36 square kilometers. Some recent media reports say nearly 800 policemen, half of the total sanctioned strength of police in Swat, have either deserted or proceeded on long leave on one pretext or the other. Therefore, the private army raised by Fazalullah literally rules the roost in most parts of the valley which is witnessing a dominance of the Wahabi doctrine as most of his supporters actually belong to the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi.
The Wahabi followers of Fazalullah are making a state within a state in Swat, having already established his own administration on the pattern of the Saudi monarchs besides creating a private army, equipped with the latest weapons and controlled by his trusted and loyal commanders. Besides establishing a parallel judicial system across the valley dealing with cases of numerous natures, Fazalullah has also established a Baitul Maal for which his commanders collect Ushr. Contributing further to the already grim scenario is the growing negative public perception of the military operation which they believe has killed more civilians than militants. While no credible data is available about the civilian casualties in the military operation, the Police Data Centre in Swat estimates the figure ran into hundreds.
According to an army spokesman at the Swat Media Centre (SMC), no credible figures are available about the civilian casualities in the military operation so far. However, he said since October 2007, around 15,000 military and paramilitary troops had killed 784 militants in Swat, while the number of the troops martyred during the same period stood at 189. "Of the security forces people killed in the operation, 80 belonged to the Army, 61 were policemen, 35 were the staffers of the Frontier Constabulary while the remaining seven belonged to the Frontier Corps". The SMC spokesman said that the militants in Swat had carried out 165 bomb attacks against the security forces since 2007, which included 17 suicide and 148 remote controlled attacks. The spokesman further told, since the start of the military operation in the valley, the militants have destroyed 20 bridges besides setting ablaze 165 girls schools, 80 video shops and 22 barber shops. He conceded that up to a third of Swat’s 1.5 million people have left the area since the launch of the ’Operation Rah-e-Haq’.
Asked to comment on the media reports saying that the Swat valley has fallen to the militants and the military operation has simply failed to produce the desired results, an ISPR spokesman said that the Pakistan army troops were fully capable to swiftly evict and kill militants in Swat but they were giving peace a chance to avoid civilian casualties in the wake of requests from the provincial government as well as the local elders who are in touch with the militants to ensure peace. He referred to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani’s January 19, 2009 statement on the floor of the National Assembly, saying: "The use of force or military action is not the only solution to everything and we will have to adopt a political strategy to deal with the situation in Swat."
The spokesman said the military operation in Swat was still on, the troops were still deployed in the valley and only some pockets have fallen to the militants. It is therefore wrong to say that the militants have taken the control of the Swat district", he added. Asked about the military strategy to maintain the writ of the state and to contain the rising influence of the Taliban militants in Swat, the ISPR spokesman said the military has recently begun to implement the new strategy which would focus more on consolidating and securing the main supply routes and urban and rural centres by putting more boots on the ground. "The army presently has four brigades in Swat including one from Rawalpindi overseen by a General Officer Commanding. We have recently made some adjustments and to begin with, the security forces are gearing up to secure Mingora and its outer-parameters", he added.
The rise of Maulana Fazalullah, the man ruling the Swat valley, has been like a roller-coaster ride. Fazalullah is a resident of the Mamderai area who was born to Biladar Khan, a Pukhtun of Babukarkhel clan of the Yusufzai tribe of the Swat district. Biladar Khan was highly inspired by the TNSM and thus became one of the right-hand men of Maulana Sufi Mohammad. Finding himself even more devoted for the enforcement of Shariah, which had been the motto of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), he sent his son, the then Fazal Hayat, now Fazalullah, to his madrassa at Kumbar in Dir district. This long and equally close association between Sufi and Fazal eventually turned into matrimonial relationship when the young son of Biladar became the son in law of the TNSM chief.
After Sufi Mohammad [who had actually formed the TNSM in 1992 after leaving the Jamaat-e-Islami] was awarded life imprisonment in 2002 by an anti-terrorism court on charges of inciting youngsters to illegally cross the Pak-Afghan border to wage jehad against the US-led Allied Forces which had invaded Afghanistan, Fazalullah made his native village Mamderai as headquarter of the TNSM and got it shifted from Kumbar, Dir to Mamderai, Swat. Generally referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, primarily to distinguish itself from the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar, the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi or the Movement for Enforcement of Islamic Laws, is a militant Wahabi organization which has fast emerged in the Malakand Division of the NWFP and in the Bajaur Agency of the FATA as a private army to reckon with.
As far as the TNSM organizational structure is concerned, Fazalullah is assisted by the two shuras, or councils. One is the Ulema Shura with several Swati clerics who advise him about the religious policies of the group. Another shura, which is also called the executive body, is the highest policy making organ of the TNSM which has a large number of ex-servicemen, including retired Commissioned Officers, as its members. Always sporting a black turban, the followers of Fazalullah are also called Black Turbans. He has never had his photograph taken, believing that Islam forbids taking pictures of human beings lest it becomes the first step to idol worship. The essence of his agenda is in the motto: "Shariah ya Shahadat (Islamic laws or martyrdom)".
During the July 2007 Lal Masjid operation against the fanatic Ghazi brothers in Islamabad, Fazalullah came into action against the government forces to avenge the military operation. A large number of people armed with rifles, Kalashnikovs and small arms started gathering at his madrassa as he announced it was time to go to war. His announcing that thousands of militants were ready to avenge the attack was followed by a series of suicide attacks targeting the security forces. As many students belonging to the Red Mosque linked seminaries were from this area, the army action generated sympathy for Fazalullah’s cause. Most of the anti-government demonstrations and rallies to protest the operation against the extremists were held in this region.
Soon after the Lal Masjid operation, Fazalullah decided to join hands with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan led by Commander Baitullah Mehsud, in a bid to provide an umbrella to all insurgent movements operating in several tribal agencies and settled areas of the NWFP. Since then, Fazalullah and his followers are toeing Baitullah’s line, whether they are issuing a decree, signing a peace deal with the government or scrapping the same. Therefore, it appears by all accounts that the small coterie of Fazalullah-led militants is working in the same mould as the fanatic clerics of the Lal Masjid did, to make the Swat district hostage to its rigid vision of militant Islam. And remember, the valley is hardly 160 kilometers from Islamabad.