On September 12, 2014, the Pakistani army claimed the arrest of all 10 Taliban terrorists involved in the attempted assassination of teenage activist Malala Yousafzai and her friends, Kainat and Shazia. The arrests were announced some two years after the incident, which happened on October 9, 2012 while the girls were returning from school; all accused are said to hail from Malakand, with military spokesman Major General Asim Bajwa promising they would be tried under anti-terror laws.
Three days later, on September 15, Malik Zahir Shah, head of peace committee of Gul Jabba village of Kabal sub-division, was killed by unknown militants in broad daylight. He was murdered near a check post manned by security and police personnel. Another two peace committee members — Muhammad Zaib Khan and Fareed Khan — were gunned down the same day in Bara Bandai area of Kabal sub-division, as they were heading home from a local bazaar. After their killings, locals say the army imposed a curfew in various villages of Kabal sub-division and started a search operation.
Between the military and the Taliban forces, the joust for power and control over Swat is ongoing — security remains in a state of flux despite five years having elapsed since the army first launched an operation in late 2007 to reclaim Swat.
More than five years after the army first launched a major operation against the Taliban in Swat, the tug-of-war for control over the valley continues
In the beginning of 2007, Taliban militants led by Maulana Fazlullah, now central chief of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) took control of the Swat district and waged a campaign of attacking schools, killing policemen, and beheading opponents. An apparent crackdown on Fazlullah’s militia started in July 2007 by the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary (FC) force and the police on orders issued by then provincial government of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) — an alliance of six religio-political parties — but it failed to establish the writ of the state.
|October, 2007: A citizen shows a leaflet dropped by the government from helicopters in Imamdehri, a village of Swat valley, urging them to support security forces in tracking down militants.—AFP file photo|
As a result, Taliban militias became more powerful and more areas came under their complete control. Residents of Swat saw several small-level military operations and a peace deal between Fazlullah’s militia and the newly elected Awami National Party (ANP)-led provincial government in May 2008. But even this pact could not deter Taliban militants from their subversive activities, including suicide attacks and attacks on state installations and security forces. Almost all organs of the state, including the police, the local administration, public schools, banks and courts retreated, closed down and disappeared.
However, in May 2009, Pakistani army carried out an operation against the Taliban militants which wrested control of the valley from their grasp, displacing around 1.7 million people in the process. But the remaining Taliban changed tactics and incidents of targeted killing of anti-Taliban figures and other subversive activities continue, whipping up fear among the local residents, especially those who supported the army in the operation.
Resurgence of Taliban activities
Omar Hayyat, an influential elder from the Takhta Band area of Mingora, was offering Isha prayers in the first row at a local mosque on July 23. As he prostrated, unknown militants climbed over the worshippers and shot Hayyat dead. The assailants escaped without any resistance.
“Jihadi groups such as Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammad, which re-surfaced recently after 2007, are openly carrying out fund raising and recruitment campaigns in Swat
In the last three years, a number of members of Village Defence Committees (VDCs) or peace committees — which are being organised at village-level in entire districts with the army’s support — have been targeted by unknown militants. Hayyat was one among them.
|November, 2007: A militant stands outside the local police station in Matta, with a signboard announcing that it the station is now under control of the local Taliban.—AFP file photo|
Feroz Shah, central leader of a committee formed at Kabal sub-division level, argues that political leaders and members of peace committees of Swat, who resisted the atrocities of Taliban militants and supported the army operation instead, are key targets of TTP militants. According to the police and media reports, at least 30 peace committee members have been gunned down in Swat in the last three years. In the same wave of targeted attacks, Taliban assailants attempted to kill Malala Yousafzai, the well-known teenage education activist, in 2012.
The killing of peace committee members is an ongoing process of retaliation, explains Sartaj Khan, a social researcher who has worked extensively on insurgencies in the Pakhtun and Baloch regions. “Most of these men have been instrumental in helping authorities arrest militants, destroy their houses, and even assisting in finding them in other places, such as Karachi. By killing the peace committee members, Taliban militants are trying to warn the others to keep distance from security forces.”
In recent days, militants also targeted army personnel. Two army soldiers on patrol were injured in an attack in Nazarabad area of Matta sub-division on August 15. After the attack, the army carried out a search operation in the area and detailed around 10 suspects. In another incident in May, an army vehicle was targeted in Malam Jabba.
Traders in Swat also complain that they have been receiving letters with the reference of Taliban leaders, text messages and phone calls asking them to pay extortion money. “We are getting phone calls with Afghanistan codes and Karachi numbers demanding we pay extortion money,” a traders’ leader in Matta said. While some local activists believe that local criminals are using the TTP name to extort money, a number of traders are silently paying up because of fear and very few traders have registered complaints in local police stations. In Ramazan, leaflets purporting to be from the TTP were distributed in Madyan bazaar, warning local women not to visit the market and bazaars.
“It would be good if the army allows the local administration and police to handle the security and administrative situation in Swat,” argues Yousafzai. Whether the local administration is up to that task is another question, however.
Great fatalities: Nepkikhel
Villages of Kabal sub-division situated to the north of Mingora (the main business hub of Swat) across the River Swat are inhabited by the sub-clan of the Yousafzais, the Nepkikhel. The area was the birth-place of the Swati Taliban and Fazlullah is from one of its villages, named Mamdehrai. The majority of the assassinated Taliban militants and peace committee members both are from the region. “Only from the Nepkikhel region, with a population of around 500,000, more than 700 people who were associated with or sympathisers of Fazlullah, are still absconders,” Shah said.
|December, 2007: Pakistani troops capture Maulana Fazlullah’s sprawling Imam Dehri complex in Mingora.—AP file photo|
Background interviews with tribal elders and local residents suggest that security forces have detained a number of suspected militants from the region and that hundreds of them have died in military’s custody since 2009. Zama Swat, a Mingora-based news website, which regularly compiles such statistics, says that more than 300 detainees have died since 2009 and that the majority of them are from Nepkikhel.
The wives and children of the detained men hold regular protests in Kanju Bazaar, outside the army’s local headquarters and the residence of local MNA Murad Saeed. “Security forces have arrested their relatives and now they are ‘missing’. We demand to show their whereabouts and present them in the courts,” said Jan Saba, a leader of the families of ‘missing persons’ from Nepkikhel region.
Swat connections with Afghanistan and Karachi
Although the government confidently claimed that militants were wiped out from the Swat valley in a successful military operation, local tribal elders and commentators say that while the lower militant cadre was arrested or killed, Fazlullah and his key lieutenants, along with a number of armed fighters, managed to flee into the Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan during the operation. “The military operation has destroyed the command-and-control of Swati militants but it has not finished them,” asserts Khadim Hussain, a security analyst and author of The Militant Discourses.
Fazlullah, who was made new chief of the TTP after the killing of Hakeemullah Mehsud in a drone strike on November 1 in North Waziristan, declared that his organisation will continue to fight the Pakistani state until his version of Islamic law is implemented across the country. In a rare video message released on May 19, he directed suicide bombers to prepare to fight against the tanks and artillery of what he called ‘evil forces’.
|November, 2011: Rebuilding carries apace at the Governement Girls Degree College in Kabal, which was destroyed by Taliban militants.—Online file photo|
As analyst Hussain describes it, the TTP has smaller cells in Kabal, Matta, Charbagh and Miadam areas of Swat, which, after the appointment of Fazlullah as TTP chief, have become active and are killing peace committee members with hit-and-run tactics.
Fazlullah and his fighters now carry out cross-border attacks in the bordering areas of Dir, Bajaur and Mohmand districts from Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan. On June 4, seven security personnel were killed in Mamond area of Bajaur in a cross-border attack claimed by the TTP. In October last year, the TTP also issued a video of September 15 bombing that killed two senior Pakistani generals, Maj. Gen. Sanaullah Khan Niazi and Lieutenant Colonel Touseef, who were commanders in Swat, near the Pak-Afghan border in Dir district.
During the military operation, a number of Swati militants moved to Karachi, where they brought their fight to the streets of that city. Working in collaboration with Mehsud and Mohmand militants, Swati militants have killed a number of Swati pro-government elders travelling to Karachi for personal and business reasons, leaders of Awami National Party and now police personnel in the city.
Police officials believe that TTP Swat chapter in Karachi is led by Azizullah alias Baba Shamzai and Qari Shakir in Karachi. “Fazlullah, current chief of TTP, is personally ordering his Karachi group directly from Kunar province of Afghanistan to carry out subversive activities and kill policemen in the city following the killing of a number of militants in police encounters,” said Irfan Ali Baloch, a senior police official in Karachi.
Local residents in Swat are also concerned over re-emergence of Jihadi organisations, which mainly focus on Indian-administrated Kashmir, in the valley. “Jihadi groups such as Hizbul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammad, which re-surfaced recently after 2007, are openly carrying out fund raising and recruitment campaigns in Swat,” said Sardar Ahmed Yousafzai, a political analyst and president of Kabal Tehsil Bar Association in Swat. He said that supporters of Fazullah could join these Jihadi outfits and could deteriorate security situation in region again.
Withdrawal of troops and establishment of cantonments
During the Taliban reign, armed militants used to stop and search residents at checkpoints in different parts of Swat. But after the military operation, security forces now man such checkpoints. Residents say that the number of army checkpoints has been reduced now, although the army is also stationed on peaks of mountains surrounding the valley.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)-led Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, after winning polls in May 2013 in the Swat valley and all of KP, worked towards a plan for the withdrawal of army from Swat. But according to a PTI parliamentarian elected from Swat the security situation, especially the assassinations of pro-government elders and the killing of Niazi, made pulling out the army impossible.
Now, the Pakistani military is constructing three cantonments in the Swat district to prevent attacks from the Taliban militants. Swat’s residents are divided over the presence of the army and the construction of cantonments in the valley. “After the withdrawal of the army, Taliban militants could again try to regroup in the area,” says Shah, adding that the army’s presence and construction of cantonment was necessary for maintaining peace in the valley.
However, some analysts and residents think differently and say that security check posts and search operations in different parts of Swat have frustrated the local community. “It would be good if the army allows the local administration and police to handle the security and administrative situation in Swat,” argues Yousafzai. Whether the local administration is up to that task is another question, however.
Local residents have their own conspiracy theories over the construction of cantonments in Swat. “It seems the emergence of Taliban in Swat and resultant military operation all was a drama just to acquire prime land in Swat for the construction of cantonment,” says Shah Hussain, a 60-year-old resident of Khwaza Khela. Villagers also complain that the prices they get from the government for their fertile land is far below the actual rate.
Civil society and environmental organisations have also expressed their concern over the construction of the cantonment in Swat. “Construction of three cantonments poses a serious challenge to the ecosystem and biodiversity of the entire region and violates international biodiversity and human rights declaration and conventions to which Pakistan is a signatory,” said an alliance of civil society organizations in Peshawar.
In June, the Pakistani army started a new operation in North Waziristan and analysts say that there are still a set of questions about the apparently incomplete job from the army’s first major operation against the Taliban militants in Swat valley. Although terrorist activity in Swat is still less as compared to the rest of the country, analysts say that continuing attacks are belying the military’s claims of securing the area from militants. Military officials and experts say the resurgent Taliban will not be able to regain the hold it had over the valley from 2007 to 2009, but are likely to restrict their fight to hit-and-run tactics, an ideal guerrilla warfare approach in Swat’s rugged terrain. In the words of Yousafzai, “there is calm in the valley, not peace”.
The writer is a journalist and researcher. He tweets @zalmayzia
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 21st, 2014