Why Swat went under Taliban control

February 07, 2009

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This is second part of the essay “Creeping Talibanisation in Swat” which appeared in Jan 31 issue of Encounter.

SWAT valley, Pakistans scenic jewel, is burning for last few years and the fire is spreading to whole of the valley. The valley is an integral part of a strategic and significant region where three parts of the Asian continent — South Asia, Central Asia and China — meet. The historical and cultural remains of the area provide evidence about human activities covering a large span of time.

Nowadays, a few thousand militants rule the former tourist paradise, which was once the most developed and educated town in Pakistans North West Frontier Province and their grip strengthens with every passing day. Militants free movement, their financial, physical and moral support is growing. On the other hand, morale of law enforcement agencies and the people supportive of the government is on the decline.

The government has lost control of 80 per cent of Swat, where Taliban are implementing their own harsh system of justice. The Taliban are fortified by Islamic fighters of Uzbek, Tajik and Chechen origin. Other recruits come from the rejected lot of society who neither know the value of their lives nor do they care about anyone else's life. Other supporters of the militants include traders angered by the local governments policy of expanding taxes, and farmers upset at high interest rates for loans to buy land. They were impressed by the militants insistence that taxes and interest rates were un-Islamic.

Infrastructure, tourism, hotel industry, agriculture and education are badly affected but, most of all, various freedoms such as freedom to criticise, to speak freely, to live feely, to work routinely in orchards, fields and shops to earn money; freedom to wear costumes of one's choice, to organise musical shows similar to Music Street in the past and freedom to observe preferred religious practices - are terribly curtailed or simply withdrawn.

Environment of fear and panic prevails in the valley. People are fleeing to other areas of the country, even the leaders — so-called representatives of the people, MNAs, MPAs — are reluctant to live in or visit the valley because of the deteriorating law and order situation but know the actual grievances of the people. In this situation, a comprehensive policy to address the problems of the people in Swat would be difficult to make and implement.

Some questions come to mind as to why Swat is burning? What are the root causes of Talibani-sation in Swat? Why Pakistani government has failed to restore its writ in the valley? Why a professional army is unsuccessful to capture or kill only a few thousand Taliban? What will happen, if Talibanisation spreads to other settled areas of the country?

The reason is that outside of Malakand and Swat, no leader is persuading people to destroy their electronic appliances. The government has failed to stop broadcasts of extreme religious views on FM radios run by Fazlullah. People question if the jamming technology could be effective in Second World War, why cant it be used now in 2009? The officials say that Taliban use mobile radio and communication tools and so far it has been difficult to jam these tools.

Some analysts believe the current turmoil in Swat is not a struggle for Sharia but a war perpetrated by the anti-Pakistan elements. Others think this is a reaction to the American policies in the region. As Fazlullah, leader of Tehreek-i-Nafaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM), the main Taliban organisation in Swat, said in his latest interview "The army should have started military operations to stop US drone attacks on Pakistan instead of bombing and shelling Swat and killing people".

Poor peoples access to justice might be called another possible reason. The government did not provide speedy and cheap justice to Swati people through their well established justice system — Qazi courts, mini councils or jirgas . After the merger with Pakistan in 1969, confusion and chaos prevailed in Swat. The litigants did not know where to turn for justice. Quick and cheap trial and decisions, whether just or unjust, and their proper execution and implementation came to an end. The prolonged procedures, undue delay, great expenditures, high bribes, misuse of riwaj and the further deterioration by PATA Regulations caused alienation of almost all the people of Swat, and created space for a movement like TNSM.

The army operation in Swat has annoyed the people. If the operation was the last option to get rid of militants, then it is hard to believe that more than 40,000 trained security forces armed with latest weapons, artillery, helicopters, fighter jets and communication systems have been unable to eliminate a few thousand militants.

There were two other drawbacks of the operation. First, indiscriminate shelling killed many civilians as well and destroyed their houses. Second, the operation weakened people's faith in the government. They see a lack of willingness on the part of the government to curb the militancy.

The brutality, viciousness and cruelty with which Taliban have carried out their campaign of pushing Swat to the dark ages cannot not be neglected. Nearly every morning, local residents find victims of targeted killings on the roads or hanged on poles with signs warning other opponents of the militants. The possibility of Taliban's access to settled areas cannot be ruled out.

It is time parliament framed a comprehensive national security policy and the army undertook a clear mission. The civilian and military leadership should make concerted efforts to regain control of Swat from the militants.

A team of parliamentarians should visit Swat to know how to restore peace there and win the people back. The government can emerge victorious from the present crisis with the support of the people.

The government must launch a crackdown on all the training centres of Taliban, seal their financing sources, shut those markets from where they get arms and ammunition. Ulema should also play an active role by issuing fatwas against terrorism and condemn Talibanisation of society.

The NWFP government should spare no time in implementing the Sharia Nizam in the Malakand Division and Swat after its approval by the federal government. The government should not hesitate to fulfil the longstanding demand of the people in this regard. The government should rebuild the houses and infrastructure, and bring the refugees back to the area, provide aid and loans for starting their businesses once again.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Lahore.

E-mail rahil.yasin@gmail.com