Swat Valley: Whose war is this?
Swat is a valley and an administrative district in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) located 160 kilometers from the capital Islamabad. The capital of Swat is Saidu Sharif, but the main town in the Swat Valley is Mingora. With high mountains, green meadows and clear lakes, it is a place of stunning natural beauty, so much so it earned the tag "the Switzerland of Pakistan". All that has changed in the past year; it has now become a hotbed for the Taliban. In the third report in a series of articles exploring Pakistan's tribal areas, Syed Saleem Shahzad visits the valley to examine the differing natures and strategies of various Taliban groups.
The Afghan national resistance against the Soviets in the 1980s gave birth to various Islamic groups in the Pakistani tribal areas.The Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM - Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law) was founded in 1994 in Malakand Agency in NWFP, while the Promotion of Virtues and the Prevention of Vices was formed in Bajaur Agency. Different Islamic madrassas (seminaries) were established in the South Waziristan and North Waziristan tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan.
Taliban rule in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 ideologically fueled these organizations and seminaries. Nevertheless, neither Pakistan nor the international community took notice of these low-profile developments in the 1990s as people in those areas had been practising Muslims for centuries and such reformist Islamic movements, at the local level, were more or less part of age-old traditions.
In the years after the Taliban were driven out of power by the United States-led invasion in late 2001, these perceptions changed in line with the events that unfolded on both sides of the border.
Initially, the Taliban were scattered and Western intelligence organizations and military establishments estimated their strength at little more than a few thousand fighters with no central command, believing that the foreign forces in Afghanistan would face little resistance.
However, within four years all their estimates were proved wrong. The Taliban regrouped and launched a powerful comeback with their spring offensive in 2006. In southern Afghanistan especially they consolidated their strength and instituted a sound command system.
A key factor in the Taliban's revival was that from 2004 onwards they established a strong network in Pakistan coordinated by al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. A focal point of this was the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, which was stormed in July 2007 by Pakistani security forces to clear it of militants.
By this time Western intelligence had realized that this development in Pakistan was a major factor behind the "fireworks" in Afghanistan, and Islamabad was told as much. The Pakistanis were also warned that militants could also launch a revolution in Pakistan.
This was a major turning point in the "war on terror" in the South Asian theater. For the first time, Islamabad felt a chill up its spine and viewed the situation from a different perspective - not as an American war in which its participation was drawn out of compulsion, but as a war necessary to maintain the status quo of its own system. This system was a blend of the country's deep relationship with the US and the perpetuation of the military oligarchy, combined with a particular brand of Islam that could co-exist with this setup.
The attack on the Lal Masjid was the first shot fired in this battle, and its reverberations soon spread to the Swat Valley, South Waziristan and then Bajaur Agency, in effect turning the whole of NWFP into a war theater. A series of military operations in the tribal areas drove the militants from stand-alone sanctuaries into population centers.
In Malakand, which includes the Swat area, the militants are a part of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Taliban and the vanguard of the Taliban's cause in the region against Western occupation forces in Afghanistan and their ally - Pakistan. They have established their own writ with a parallel system that includes courts, police and even a electric power-distribution network and road construction.
The manner in which the militants have established themselves in the Swat Valley is surprising as 65% of the local population - mostly from secular schools - is literate, yet the central government has failed to muster mass support against the militants.
All in the valley they rode ...
Former British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill and the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, were two of the valley's more famous admirers. Jinnah coined the phrase "Switzerland of Pakistan" while Churchill, gazing down the valley from his mountain resort, once commented that all the inhabitants must be poets. He was not far off, Swat is widely known for its poetry recitals.
Poetry still thrives in the valley, but now in the form of jihadi songs promoting jihad and the mujahideen. One, with the cries of a child in the background, narrates the miseries of the children of Swat who have fallen victim to the Pakistan army's indiscriminate shelling of the area.
Nowadays, the army does not have a ground presence in the valley, apart from some manned checkpoints in the mountains and garrisons. Most attacks on militants rain from the skies.
The reason for the collateral damage is clear. Near the place from where Churchill used to gaze in wonder at the valley's beauty - known as Churchill's Picket - stands Chakdara Fort, heavily manned by the Pakistan army. It is mounted with 8mm guns which fire indiscriminately at villages many kilometers away.
These include Tigak, Koza Bandi and Fuchaar. The latter is the headquarters of Mullah Fazlullah, nicknamed "Radio Mullah", the leader of the TNSM who controls the insurgency in the Swat Valley. Koza Bandi and Tigak are also believed to be strongholds of the militants.
These three villages are still well inhabited by common folk as they do not have the resources to go anywhere else, and they have almost by default sided with the militants, even if they don't agree with them ideologically.
In dealing with the militants in the Swat Valley and elsewhere, the Pakistan military had to contend with the fact that it was waging war against countrymen and followers of the same religion.
To justify this to its soldiers, the top brass came up with the explanation that the insurgency was controlled by India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). This has even been repeated by one of the biggest supporters of the Taliban, retired Lieutenant General Hamid Gul, a former head of the Inter-Services Intelligence, who has said he has no doubt that RAW is behind the unrest.
The Pakistani military repeatedly holds briefings at which its claims that Hindus, launched by India to fuel the insurgency, have been arrested in the Swat Valley. This is clearly nonsense - in such a closed tribal society any stranger would be instantly recognized.
Nevertheless, such claims make soldiers believe they are fighting against Indian proxies whose financiers and handlers are Hindus, and the shells keep on falling. The local population is left with no option but to view the shelling as enemy fire, causing them to side with the militants, who are at least their country cousins, if not their ideological comrades.
There is another reason for the locals supporting the militancy and enabling it to force the troops to vacate more than 90% of the valley over the past one-and-a-half years - incompetent and bad governance.
During my visit, every sub-district and village I passed through told of the alienation caused by bad governance which had allowed a Taliban vigilante force to emerge and flourish.
One of the first things these vigilantes were able to do was wipe out rampant abductions and car theft by criminal gangs. Many of the once-numerous military checkpoints on the way into the valley have been abandoned in the face of the militancy.
On our way in we passed through Engaroberai Dera (Blacksmith Village), where a checkpoint had also been abolished. This area was known for its "Khans" and their cruelty. Khan is originally a Central Asian Turk title for honor, but in NWFP it came to mean rich, feudal, or feudalism.
Engaroberai Dera was also known for its begar camp (bonded labor). The native people of the village used to work in the orchards and fields owned by the Khans. In return, they were given free accommodation and food for themselves and their families, but no cash wages.
The valley is famous for its fruit, such as apples and oranges, which were grown for both local consumption and export. In this environment, the Khans prospered both financially - one Khan was found to own 500 houses - and in terms of political clout.
Once the Taliban established a foothold, they asked the people to present evidence of the Khans' wrongdoings and after investigations the Taliban settled the claims of the people. Significantly, the Taliban never called this a class war, rather, they saw it as a battle between good and bad, oppressor against oppressed.
"It is wrong to say that we are against the Khans in general. There are people who are rich and own vast lands, jungles and mountains here in the Swat Valley who are called Khan, but we never bothered them because they acquired those things from righteous sources," Haji Muslim Khan, a leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Taliban and now the official spokesperson of the Taliban in the Swat Valley, told Asia Times Online.
"However, there are people who are known for their cruelty against the people. Their grandfathers sided with the British during the liberation movement to invade the local population and now they have fled to Islamabad or Peshawar and instigated the government to bomb us. Indeed, they are wanted criminals and we take action against them," Khan said.
Most of the "bad" Khans have left the valley, although Afzal Khan has stayed. He is a leader of the Awami National Party, a secular Pashtun political party with major electoral influence in the Pashtun-dominated areas of NWFP.
Afzal Khan sent a message to the Taliban saying that he was a son of the soil and he would risk being killed by not leaving his land. The Taliban were impressed with the note and allowed him to live and he has now become a main point of communication between the Taliban and the government. However, recently he has fallen out of favor with the Taliban and now lives under heavy security provided by the army.
Traveling with the Taliban
We had just entered Tigak village when two people, one clean-shaven and the other with a long beard, approached us. One was holding an AK-47, the other a wireless radio set. They signaled the car to stop.
"Is it safe to park the car here?" I asked.
"Nobody will touch the car," the armed man answered. "If you find even a scratch, I am the in-charge for security and I will compensate you."
I then followed him into an alley and a house. A jihadi song was playing and I was greeted by three tall, light-skinned men in their early 20s.
One of them - Hussain - greeted me and told me he was familiar with Asia Times Online and my work, which he follows on our Internet site, even while fighting an insurgency. The province is one of the more high-tech in the country.
Hessian has a master of arts in mass communication, while the other two have a post-graduate science degree and a graduate degree. My guide, also from the Swat Valley and a sympathizer of the Taliban movement, is a science graduate and a former national-level field hockey player.
"Is it not odd that all of you are educated in secular schools but still support the Taliban, who blow up schools,?" I asked.
"This is a blatant lie," said Hussain. "The Taliban do not blow up schools. The media do not cover our perspective. We will take you all around. There are several school buildings in the area which we have never touched. The fact is that the military occupied the buildings and established bunkers.
"We attacked their positions, not the schools, but the buildings were damaged or destroyed. The irony is that nobody ever says that the army has occupied the school buildings and prevented children from going to school for months. But when the Taliban attack their positions, they are accused of being the enemy of education," Hussain said.
I talked to another group of Taliban until late in the night. We covered a variety of issues, ranging from the partition of British India in 1947 to the present law-and-order situation in the country.
One issue that unites the men is their abhorrence of the Pakistan military, whether for the events of the breakup of Pakistan that led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 or what they have done against Pashtuns in NWFP.
"But the military has vacated much of the Swat Valley," I commented to Muslim Khan.
"That is a strategic retreat. We hear that they are planning a strategy in which they will use some sort of nerve gases to make us unconscious," Muslim Khan commented. "If they apply such tactics, we will not be able to defend ourselves and we will have to run, but then this war will expand to Islamabad. We will go there and carry out attacks," Muslim Khan said.
"Unfortunately we are fighting with an army which said in 1970 in East Pakistan that the country needed land, not the people. They have the same principle here."
Before I could start to video the interview, the electricity went off. I thought it was loadshedding, which happens in other parts of the country.
Hussain's cell phone rang and after a brief call he said the power would be back on within an hour as there was a fault in the system, according to the executive engineer of the Water and Power Development Authority.
Later, I learned that the Taliban have strictly warned the local power staff not to dare resort to loadshedding in the Swat Valley, and apparently the warning is religiously adhered to.
The Taliban had arranged a separate room with attached bath for me and I missed the first morning prayer call, but woke to the voice of Mullah Fazlullah on the radio giving one of his famous speeches.
One of the Taliban guards was listening; I only heard the last sentence "May Allah guide us to a path where we can sacrifice our lives for his religion." After prayers and a modest breakfast, the Taliban took me in a powerful jeep around the valley.
At many places the houses were damaged by shelling. The Taliban are quick in rescue operations and they provide funds and volunteers to rebuild houses. That's part of the reason they have won mass sympathies, especially as the government is unable to provide such support to victims caught in the crossfire. The government's supplies for the troops are looted by the Taliban so they have to be delivered by helicopter.
In the sub-district Kabal, I saw houses previously occupied by the army. The Taliban have destroyed the police station, but school buildings are intact.
At Sarsanai Kabal, I encountered the first paramilitary checkpoint. I thought they would grill me, but they did not even get out of their cement bunker. The Talib sitting beside me said they never left their bunkers as they were afraid of snipers.
A sign at the checkpoint read "Alone person is not allowed to pass". In Swat, an "alone person" in a car is a possible suicide bomber. With several people in our car, we were able to continue.
Both lanes of the road leading to Saidu Sharif airport were blocked with stones and barbed wire so we took an alternative route. After a while we came across a crowd gathered around a man with long hair and long beard.
The man was commander Hamud Khan, said to have recently destroyed four al-Khalid army tanks. He was the owner of a laboratory and pharmacy in Swat, but due to his association with the Taliban movement the army destroyed these.
The day before, Hamud Khan had lashed three thieves. He said I could get a video of the event from a Taliban studio. For technical reasons I could not see the video, but I got a chance to talk to the head of the media center, Mohammad Shoaib.
"In Islamic law, the hands of thieves are cut off. Why did you only lash them?" I asked.
"Such punishment can only be executed by the Islamic state. We don't have one. Nevertheless, we need to put in place a system of justice that will prevent wrongdoing," said Mohammad Shoaib.
"The biggest problem is that our system, including politicians and police, encourages crimes. They provide protection to the criminals and suggest that this is the only way to live and progress.
"When we caught these thieves and our court announced the punishment, we kept them with us for a week. We were affectionate and sympathetic towards them because they were poor and had committed the crime out of compulsion.
"Nevertheless, we made it very clear that once they had committed the crime they had to face the punishment. Even if they skipped punishment in this world, in the hereafter they would have to face painful punishment for their crimes. They were regretful of their crime and willingly faced the punishment, and afterwards they promised not to commit the crime again," Mohammed Shoaib said.
Over the past year and a half, Islamabad has without success tried various means to check the militancy in the Swat Valley.
Initially, local police and paramilitary forces were used, but they failed. Then the army directly intervened, with a similar result.
After elections early last year when the Awami National Party's (ANP's) rule was established in NWFP, its leaders offered an olive branch, but the militants refused to lay down their weapons.
Local militias were then formed through ANP structures to fight against the Taliban. The result was a disaster. Dozens of ANP workers, leaders and members of the provincial assembly lost their lives and property and now the party has been wiped out in the valley. Some ANP members resigned and announced in a local newspaper their support for the enforcement of Islamic sharia law.
The military operation that began in the valley 18 months ago to break the network of militants supporting the Afghan insurgency has turned much of NWFP into a war theater, and given the militants valuable training in fighting.
The Swat area is not situated on the Afghanistan border, but the Americans view it as the most dangerous theater as it feeds into the Taliban in Afghanistan and has the potential to dampen Pakistan's support in the "war on terror".
Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani visited Swat this week, apparently ahead of another push to crush the militants. The way things have gone to date, there is not much likelihood of this happening.
NEXT: Defending the ideology of militancy
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at [email protected]