Militancy & black economy

22 Mar 2009

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WHILE analysts cite `ideology` as the chief factor responsible for the rising militancy in the country, it is unfortunate that little attention is being paid to the nexus between militants and the black economy.

Smugglers and businessmen engaged in dubious trade foster anarchy in the northwest of Pakistan to further their vested interests. They invest money and energy in the so-called process of Talibanisation — that is how they protect their illegal businesses at the expense of the state`s writ.

Taking its cue from its centre in Swat, the influential timber mafia in other parts of the Malakand Division stands accused of sponsoring extremism to keep government authorities at bay. In the 1990s, the Tehrik Nifaz-i-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM) chief Sufi Mohammad organised a sit-in to rechristen Kufar Dara and give it the name of Islamdara in Lower Dir. Even elements close to the TNSM chief believe that many front-runners in this religious campaign were anti-social elements. They included gangs of car-lifters and farmers who had been given vast swathes of land during the era of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and now feared that the local chieftains (khans) would get these. More importantly, these elements included the powerful timber mafia living in the huge forest reserves of Swat, Dir, Shangla and Kohistan.

Before the start of the Swat military operation in 2007, a militant commander arranged a visit for some journalists to show them medical camps set up for injured comrades inside spacious houses. This writer was taken inside a sprawling bungalow which housed a huge timber godown divided into different sections to accommodate beds and extend treatment facilities to militants. The start of the military operation and the ensuing conflict in Swat and Shangla `coincided` with the ruthless felling of timber in the surrounding hills blanketed with pine forests.

No journalist had the time then to report on this devastation, and only one parliamentarian from Shangla district raised the issue in the Senate, blaming the timber mafia for the destruction of rich forest resources. In fact, perhaps to save his own neck, the JUI senator gave only part of the picture without mentioning the involvement of militants in this illegal business.

Towards mid-November 2007, the militants headed towards Shangla district and a heavy battle followed at Belay Baba. Denizens of the troubled town of Alpuri and its adjacent thickly wooded green valleys fled to escape the heavy artillery shelling from the bordering Swat district. Many, while ascending the five-kilometre dirt route from Alpuri to Shangla Top, would stop at the sound of trees being cut in the nearby mountains. A gentle night breeze spread the scent of the newly felled pine trees across the area. Truckloads of `war booty`, looted from Alpuri Bazaar, would thread their way towards Shangla Top under the protection of the Taliban whose attention was not in the least diverted by the sound of the thick pine forests being felled.

Officials who served and lived in the area believe that subversive elements gave their blood and sweat to the TNSM since its formation in 1988. That is why militants mostly served as `cavalry` for the powerful timber mafia in the districts of Swat and Dir, and they rode on the success of the militants, swooping on the verdant pine mountains spread over 600 square miles like vultures. A recent survey conducted by the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy reveals that a loss of over Rs8bn was incurred by the forest sectors of Swat alone during the last 16 months. Being shrewd investors, the timber mafia is believed to have spent part of its dividends to sponsor militancy.

Huge sums are involved in the business which has expanded to the hills bordering Afghanistan. Recalling his visit to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in 1998, an NWFP parliamentarian said, “The then deputy governor of Kunar province, Abdullah Jan, complained that timber agents from Swat had ruined the thick forests in the bordering areas lying close to Pakistan`s Dir district.” The Afghan governor said that the Taliban administration of Kunar province had arrested a few members of the mafia; however, they were released after they promised never to return.

Besides the exploitation of thick pine forests, precious emerald mines and archaeological artefacts have also been a huge source of revenue for the local black economy. As the media wrestled for news emerging from the recent Swat peace agreement, militants captured the emerald mines on the outskirts of the main town of Mingora and in the Shamozai area in Kabal tehsil. Subsequently, heavy excavations started in which over 200 labourers took part to extract precious stones, with the Taliban taking one-third of the total share. Other plunderers have also had a field day thronging to the mines (where finds are of excellent quality) one of which had earned the government about Rs90m through a single auction in the past.

No different is the plight of over 22 official archaeological sites, where illegal excavations have continued unabatedly in the absence of government action against such activity. It is hard to obtain information about who is getting what in the loot and plunder of natural and archaeological resources. However, it is certain that part of the share is reinvested to extend support to subversive causes in the bordering districts.

Monetary interest has a significant part to play in driving the `ideological struggle` in other troubled spots also. Last year, when the federal government formed a jirga to initiate a peace agreement with militants in Waziristan, one of those involved was a business tycoon with investments in North Waziristan.

The militants have demanded the removal of security check posts along the main routes in North and South Waziristan. It is an open secret that a web of smugglers and criminals operates from the bordering areas with Afghanistan. Moreover, smugglers have flooded Punjab and Sindh with sophisticated vehicles on which duty hasn`t been paid. One ring leader from Bannu called Hukumat Khan still remembers the huge profit he used to earn, while paying Rs10,000 to a driver for ensuring that the smuggled vehicles got past a check post safely. Though Hukumat is no more active as the Taliban have replaced his ilk in the local power centres, he admits that the trade (tribesmen do not consider smuggling a crime) involved billions.

All this points to the symbiotic tie between the pro-active `business` mafia, whose greed knows no bounds when it comes to the vast natural resources of the troubled areas, and the militants for whom funds is an integral part of efforts to keep their `ideology` alive. This makes it all the more necessary for those wielding power in government to devise a strategy that would isolate monetary benefits from militancy. This will cut the lifeline providing oxygen to anti-state forces.

syedirfanashraf@gmail.com