That Islamabad has perfected the art of developing a headache into a full-blown migraine is now amply clear in Swat.
The gem of Pakistan’s tourism that once attracted tourists from all over the world, with its roads meandering the mountainous region along the River Swat, has been swarmed with Jihadists and Islamists of all hues and shades, spearheaded by a cleric who rules the airwaves.
The problem in Swat and much of Malakand that encompasses the districts of Lower and Upper Dir, Buner, Shangla and Chitral, has been festering since 1994, when the now-defunct Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariat Muhammadi (TNSM) mounted its first rebellion against the state and demanded the enforcement of Sharia in the region.
The uprising followed the February 12, 1994, Supreme Court verdict declaring the PATA Regulation that governed the Provincially-Administered Tribal Areas of Malakand as unconstitutional.
The void created by the SC judgment led to the demand for Sharia enforcement. The man then leading the uprising was Maulana Sufi Mohammed, the father-in-law of Maulana Fazlullah, now known as Maulana Radio, the present TNSM Amir in Swat.
As the government dragged its feet, thousands of followers of Sufi Muhammad, an otherwise simple man, took on the state, seizing control of government buildings and the Saidu Sharif airport and held judges and court officials hostage.
So simplistic were Sufi’s views that he ordered all vehicles to drive on the right side of the road, instead of on the right, facing vehicles coming from the opposite direction. The order caused accidents and huge traffic jams before the penny dropped and the situation was brought under control.
The rebellion was put down by a combination of force and political means. The problem, however, continued to simmer. Almost five years later, in 1999, the NWFP government promulgated the Nizam-i-Adl Regulation that provided for the establishment of the courts of district Qazis in place of district judges, which some believed at the time merely a change of just nomenclature than one of substance.
Most analysts agree that the demand for the enforcement of Sharia in the region stemmed from the public yearning for the good old days when Swat was a princely state ruled by the Wali. The area had the best of educational institutions, best of roads and health services and, most important of all, justice was quick, cheep and simple.
In some ways, the public desire for quick justice has taken the form of a demand for Sharia.
The Nizam-i-Adl Regulation did not solve any of the underlying problems. On the contrary, the superior courts threw out many of the decisions of the district Qazis and, at one point, recommended to the NWFP government to remove one of Qazis. That Qazi would later become the author of the controversial Hasba Bill as head of the Law Department in the MMA-led government.
That, however, was not the only contributing factor to the rise of the TNSM in the region at the expense of Jamaat-i-Islami that considered Malakand as its stronghold. There were other factors as well, say the analysts, including the growing resentment amongst landless peasants against the local Khans, the huge trading community and those involved in smuggling of tax-free vehicles, to gravitate towards a movement that considered all forms of taxes un-Islamic in a region that has remained outside the ambit of taxes since the abolition of princely state and its merger into Pakistan in 1969.
Much has changed now and 2007 is not 1994. Sufi Mohammed, who had led thousands of supporters, some of them armed with swords and hatchets, across the border into Afghanistan to fight the invading US forces in 2001, has since been languishing in the Dera Ismail Khan jail.
The TNSM ranks and file have been infiltrated, and, according to some analysts, even led by hardcore Jihadists and militants from banned outfits who have set up their own shops and training camps in the mountainous region.
The first tell-tale sign of the militants’ presence emerged in December, 2004, when, according to security officials, militants from a banned Jihadi outfit robbed a bank in Matta. Police gave them a chase and eventually got hold of them with the help of villagers. The outfit came to be known as the ‘Peochar Group’, named after the area of their operation in Matta.
On November 9, 2006, a suicide bomber blew himself up at an army recruitment centre in Dargai in Malakand, killing 42 recruits. Investigators following a lead traced the bombing to the Peochar Group. Several arrests were made but its ring leader, a cleric, remains at large.
Government officials acknowledge that Fazlullah, who has been disowned by his octogenarian father-in-law, is leading his own faction that has more following than Sufi Mohammed’s TNSM. The real problem would be the hardcore militants who hold sway in Matta sub-district and elsewhere and who are using Fazlullah as a front man.
So, while there are some in the establishment who advocate releasing the old man who believes in non-violence, to rein in his renegade son-in-law, there are others who feel that Sufi Mohammed has lost much of his influence, particularly among the youngsters, who have since gravitated and drifted toward the 37-year-old former Jehanzeb College student.
Unfortunately, however, there are few people in the government who really have an understanding of what is a very complicated issue. The district coordination officer and the district police officer were changed barely two days before security forces were positioned for a possible operation. Both, despite being good officers, are new to the area and largely ignorant of its geography, history and dynamics. At the top is a caretaker chief minister – a non-political man who probably knows more about hydel power than the power dynamics and intricacies of issues in an area like Swat.
To make matters worse, the system of governance President Gen Pervez Mushrarraf imposed on the country has caused some serious security implications, more pronounced in Swat than probably anywhere else.
Section 35 of the Police Order, 2002, that deals with the relationship between district police and district nazim clearly states that the head of the district police shall be responsible to the district nazim for police functions which include law and order. The district nazim of Swat has fled the district, along with his family, to the relatively safe environs of Islamabad after a roadside bombing. His house was set on fire late last month. The nazim of an adjoining district has also moved to Peshawar.
The district coordination officers have no legal authority to exercise powers with regards to maintenance of law and order. The elected district mayors are reluctant and too weak to take on militants while the risk of violence spilling over into the adjoining districts in Malakand looms large. There is no coordination between the nazims on the one hand, with two of them already having left their areas because of security concerns, and the district coordination officers and district police officers on the other, leaving home secretary and the provincial chief to resolve the issue.
It is all too apparent that the government finds itself in a much bigger and deeper mess now than probably ever before, largely due to its own doings.
Lack of understanding of inherent issues, failure to come up with prompt and timely response, instead of knee-jerk reactions, and complacency have all contributed to turn militancy into a behemoth too difficult to handle.
The irony is that while the state machinery is fast becoming dysfunctional both in terms of social service delivery and security, those at the helm are yet to wake up and look beyond self service.