The devil in the backyard

Warzone A Pakistani gunship flies low over Swat valley, which has been taken over by the Taliban, Photo: AFP

THE ONE-TIME tourist heaven of Swat looks like a ghost valley today. The people have still not recovered from the gory nightmare that was unleashed by the local Taliban. The last one-and-a-half year has seen a population of 1.5 million people being held hostage by a ragtag force of some 2,500 Taliban. They are under the leadership of Maulvi Fazalullah, popularly known as Mullah Radio for his jihad-inflected sermons, aired through his illegal FM radio. Fazalullah’s men have fought bloody battles with the army over the past two years. They virtually took control of most of Swat last year. Over 1,200 civilians have died so far and around 350,000 hapless locals forced to leave through rough mountain terrain.

The rich have left for Peshawar — 70 miles away, and the richer for more posh Islamabad — 100 miles in the south. The poor, with no place to go, suffered the trauma that makes Hollywood horrors look like a picnic. Intelligence sources dubbed as ‘spies’ and government officials — particularly from law-enforcing agencies — were specifically targeted by the Taliban. They were abducted and maimed and their killing turned into a gruesome spectacle in order to send a message to others.

The reign of terror is symbolised by what has come to be known as Khooni Chowk — the Crossing of Blood. A band of Taliban would, late at night, block the central crossing in the city centre of Mingora, the district headquarters the size of Srinagar and no less beautiful. They hung amputated bodies — some headless — on an electrical pole in the middle of the crossing, with notes giving their name and details of their ‘misdeeds’ against Islam. The bodies were not to be removed before a given date. Anybody violating this dictat could do so only at the risk of being himself put up headless.

New regime People flee the Taliban, Photo: Reuters

THIS SCENE — perpetuated for days and weeks — is not from the Wild West of the cowboys. It happened in the Swat valley, which once took pride in having the most peaceful and bettereducated residents not just in the frontier province alone, but all over Pakistan. The princely state — annexed by Pakistan in 1969 — had better schools, hospitals and police stations than anybody else. It had an airport, and attractions like ski resorts and trout fishing on the meandering River Swat, which used to attract hordes of tourists every year. No more.

A majority of the police force has either run away, resigned or simply not turned up for work. Local newspapers are filled with advertisements from policemen declaring that they have left their jobs, and hence they be spared “in the name of their small children.” A new force of 600 locals was recruited for special commando training to combat what is actually an insurgency. The story goes that 450 of them disappeared during the training itself, and another 148 did not appear on the date of joining. The two men left in the force have not ventured outside their office in uniform since.

New regime girls are being barred from studying in schools, Photo: AP

This left the entire populace at the mercy of the wolves that are masquerading as saviours of religion. People have seen throats being slit. Those who violate the Taliban code are either lashed or hanged in public jirgas (gatherings). Events where masked gunmen with the latest weaponry went on the rampage were skillfully orchestrated, and then their videos released in order to instill fear in the public. This took a severe toll on the psyche of the public, already hard pressed thanks to unemployment and hunger.

Life has come to a standstill for 80 percent of the people whose earnings came from tourism. Orchids have become rotten in the absence of labour and markets; and the fields lie barren. People go without fire, food, and electricity for days. The only cinema in Mingora was forced to down shutters, television and music has been banned, and CD shops have been closed. Even barbershops were shutdown as shaving, according to the interpretation of the Taliban, is un-Islamic.

New regime while all opposition is decimated, Photo: AP

It has been particularly hard for women, children and the handicapped because of the problems of age or sickness. Over 200 schools have been blown up as they were giving “western education.” Girls are barred from schooling. Over 100,000 Swati girls stand to lose their chance of education and, consequently, any career or professional life. This is happening in a place where the ratio of women in literacy and the job market was one of the highest in the province. The new edict may allow girls an education till the fourth grade, but with a revised curriculum. Also, they must always wear scarves on their heads. In any case, it will take awhile as most schools have been destroyed.

Women have been rendered prisoner in their own homes as they are now barred from going out in public, something that even Saudi Arabia has not tried. The central bazaar for women — with items like cosmetics and bangles, when partially open — today gives an image of a haunted place without shoppers. But then, cosmetics are a lesser priority when your children sleep hungry. Women are not allowed to work. Even women doctors are not permitted to carry on with their jobs. Stories abound where women lost babies because of the non-availability of doctors. Many others have died because of the lack of medicines and medical treatment.

The question is — how did over a million people accept the inhuman dictates of a bunch of jihadi thugs who do not fit into any Islamic school of thought? Well, they have not. They voted liberal parties to power in the last election. But these parties did not have either the political muscle, or the will, to protect them from the evil of the Taliban.

But how did the Taliban gain ascendancy? The system of justice under the princely state was more efficient than what followed. The people, therefore, wanted Sharia courts to be established as a way of achieving quick justice and dispensing with the long delays and corruption of the civil courts. But the Taliban, who had a different agenda, hijacked their demand. For ordinary people, in the absence of the writ of the state, it’s just a matter of choosing a lesser evil.

Who won? The Taliban celebrates, Photo: AP

All hopes now hinge upon Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the father-in-law of Fazalullah. Sufi Mohammad is no angel himself. He is a radical cleric freed in 2008 after spending six years in jail for leading 10,000 Pashtun tribesmen to fight the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Nearly 7,000 died in the bombing and he ran back for his life. The people whose children he took with him after indoctrinating them, leading to their being killed, hate him. He has now been resurrected in order to persuade Fazalullah to accept the government’s offer of a ceasefire, which he has agreed to partially. How long this respite will last, only time will tell.

The ceasefire agreement with the Taliban has raised questions as to whether it is a victory for the Pakistan Government, capitulation before the Taliban who want to recreate a 1,500-year-old replica of Islamic rule, or a strategic retreat by the military.

IT IS ironic that Frontier Chief Minister Ameer Khan Hoti, the great grandson of the champion of nonviolence, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan — the Frontier Gandhi — has signed the agreement. He has justified it saying, “I have done this to stop violence and to fulfill my electoral promise of restoring peace.” His uncle and Awami National Party Chief Asfand Yar Wali — whose party runs the troubled province bordering Afghanistan — is under attack from the Taliban. He survived a suicide bomb attack three months ago while most of his party members are on the run because of constant threats to their life.

The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Government at the Centre is playing it safe. President Asif Zardari’s position is that he will decide when the agreement will come to him for his signature. Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood has tried to pacify the Americans while on a tour of Washington, saying, “it’s a local remedy to a local problem.” The PPP has neither accepted the agreement nor rejected it. Obviously, the PPP Government would like to see what the outcome will be in a couple of months, if not earlier, before taking a stand. In the meantime, PPP spinmasters are arguing that the Sharia courts are not the same as strict Islamic law. The new laws, for instance, would not ban education of women or impose other strict tenets espoused by the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

LIBERAL CIRCLES in Pakistan and abroad are fuming over what they call “the sellout.” Some, like human rights activist Iqbal Haider, have described it as a deal with the devil. “How can you sit with the very people who have maimed hundreds of people,” he protested. “It’s a matter of principle which should be supreme. These people should be tried for crimes against humanity.”

The liberals have a valid argument that the agreement will now be a model for the rest of the Taliban. They will demand similar Sharia in other parts of the province. “Now they know that militancy is the way to coerce the government into submission,” said senior analyst Saleem Khilji. They have a point, as the agreement extends the scope of their power. The government has conceded that the new Sharia will be extended beyond Swat to the other five districts of Malakand division also.

The Pakistan Army has taken refuge behind the government, saying that it is following orders to stay out till further notice. They should be the happiest lot if this agreement were to result in peace. They have taken the brunt of the fight. Media reports say army casualties number more than a hundred dead but the Taliban claims that it might be much higher.

The issue is that the Pakistan Army has been trained to fight with India, and it may not be comfortable with counterinsurgency operations. It does not have sufficient experience of that except for the Balochistan insurgency in the 1970s, unlike its Indian rival, which has consistently countered insurgencies in Kashmir, Nagaland and Mizoram.

The army will remain stationed in Swat to deal with the fallout. The underlying assumption is that either Sufi Mohammad will deliver peace or fight with his son-inlaw. This will be a tactical victory. Instead of the army fighting the Taliban, it would be the militants fighting each other.

But then there is a counter-theory — the two factions might use the time to regroup, consolidate their power and fight later with even more ferocity. There are already signs of this happening. An indicator is that the price of arms in the tribal belt has almost doubled because of the massive demand.

In any case, the agreement is simply not implementable. Each party has a different interpretation of it. The governments in the Frontier and Islamabad think that the Sharia court is old wine in a new bottle. Sufi Mohammad believes that his mandate is to provide Sharia courts where religious scholars will be independent judges and not advisers to the regular civil judges like in the earlier agreement of six years ago. “The choice of judges will be ours and they will be all-powerful,” said Maulana Izzat, spokes man of Sufi Mohammad, in a telephonic interview.

Who won? Pakistan President Zardari confers with the Prime Minister and the army chief, Photo: AP

Fazalullah wants the complete domination of the Sharia, encompassing all sectors beyond the judiciary. “We shall run the entire area in accordance with the holy book, “countered Muslim Khan, another spokesman for Fazalullah. “We don’t accept any system but our own and will inshallah spread it to other parts of Pakistan very soon.”

The legal and administrative intricacies involved in merging the old system with the new are something beyond these clerics. The Taliban have simply ceased fire but not surrendered. Both sides are waiting for the next round to start with bated breath. It almost came to that when a newly-appointed senior district official was kidnapped by militants two days after the ceasefire. After a tense standoff lasting hours, the official, Kushal Khan, was freed.

Later, it was disclosed that his release had been the result of a swap: Pakistani authorities released two militants who had been picked up a day earlier in Peshawar. Next time around, it is possible that some freed militants like this might renew the fighting while both sides continue to sit in the trenches.

Swat is different from other trouble spots like Bahaur, Waziristan and Khyber. It is the only trouble spot that is not a federal (FATA) but a provincial tribal area (PATA). It is wrong to generalise about the Taliban and the Swat situation in particular.

FAZALULLAH, A barely-literate former lift operator, was an indigenous product. He does not come from the ranks of Taliban or Al-Qaeda, but was later accepted by them and adopted as the commander of the area looking after his hold in the area. It is only in Swat that schools have been closed in an organised manner, otherwise the Taliban have not done so in FATA, except for occasional episodes. The Taliban have generally refrained from killing hostages, except for spies or the recent Polish engineer in Waziristan. The Swat Talibans have slit throats of hostages and security forces with ruthless abandon.

Swat is the only place which has been completely taken over by the Taliban. This may be because of its geography — it is a bowl-shaped valley. The Swat terrain makes it strategically easier for Taliban to hold power against numerical odds. There is one major communication artery along the Swat River that could easily be blocked from anywhere. In Bajaur, Khyber and Waziristan, the Taliban are dominant, but they do not run those agencies. Swat is also the only hotspot that does not border Afghanistan. In fact, it remained aloof and generally peaceful during the war with Afghanistan.

Swat has a past of peace and culture where thousands thronged from all over Pakistan and abroad every summer. Its capital, Mingora, happens to be much bigger than any other town in any of the troubled agencies.

Also, it houses the elite of Pashtun tribes, and is the abode of the royal, sophisticated Yousafzais of Tana, whereas the other agencies have a history of warring tribes. The impact of Swat’s takeover, like in the classical Clausewitzian centre of gravity, has been immense on the psyche of Pashtuns.

If the impression goes out that it’s a victory for the Taliban, it will encourage militancy elsewhere, in the rest of Pakistan. It becomes more alarming when seen in the larger context where the Waziristan commanders, pro-Pakistan Mullah Nazir and anti-state Baitullah Mehsud, along with Haji Gul Bahadur, have patched up differences in Waziristan to become a formidable force; Bajaur Taliban now expect similar Sharia in their area, and Hamimullah is blocking NATO supplies in Khyber. The Taliban seem to be on the ascendant, which should be a source of worry for not just Pakistan, but also the entire region and the world.

If the social fabric continues to be torn apart as it has in Swat, this will lead to the rise of more non-state actors who are not under the control of anyone. Since all of these commanders are connected to each other, including the militants in Kashmir, the genie is threatening to become ever more dangerous. The question is not just about the outcome of the investigation into the Mumbai attack. A more serious question is: what will happen if there is another attack of a similar nature?

Mateen is an Islamabad-based journalist

[email protected]