The Valley of Death
07 November, 2007
By Ishtiaq Ahmad
Swat, the beautiful valley cut across by crystal clear waters of a river flowing downward from the peaks of Himalayas, has, for all practical purposes, emerged as Pakistan’s second front after Waizirstan in the war against extremism and terrorism.
On the one side of this river are Pakistan’s security forces entrenched in their positions; on the other, it’s the Imam Dheri stronghold of the extremist forces loyal to Mualana Fazalullah, the 32-year old son-in-law of Sufi Muhammad, the jailed leader of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM).
Gone are the times when tourists from all across the country and the world would visit the Valley of Swat and travel up to serene mountain resorts like Kalam along Swat river known for its delicious trout fish. The same river now constitutes the dividing frontier between the forces of state and the forces of extremism.
Monday’s temporary ceasefire between the security forces and extremists loyal to Mualana Fazalullah may have brought some respite in fighting in the valley. However, there are no signs that any peace effort, including the one started by the All Parties Conference (APC) this week, will prevent renewal of fighting between the security forces and extremists.
The three-day long fighting, from Friday to Sunday, alone claimed the lives of 32 security personnel, as the bodies of 12 of these personnel who were earlier reported missing were recovered by the security forces on Tuesday. According to the ISPR, some 60 extremists were also killed in the three days of security operation, even though Maulana Sirajuddin, the spokesmen of Maulana Fazalulla, had claimed the physical loss on their side was much less.
Battle Lines Drawn
Even after Monday’s ceasefire by the extremists, the battle lines seem to be clearly between the two contenders, with each side apparently using the temporary respite in violence to consolidate its respective position. However, the temporary truce, reportedly resulting from negotiations between the extremist leadership and caretaker government minister Mohammad Ali Shah Bacha Lala, did allow thousands of women, children and elderly men to flee the embattled areas such as Matta, Kabal, Khwaza Khela, Manga Lowar and especially Imam Dehri.
Swat was one of over 550 princely states in the Indian subcontinent. Its last pre-partition prince, known as the Waliay Swat, was the father of Miangul Aurangzeb, the former MNA and Governor of Balochistan. The area is known for having a very peaceful and welcoming population. So much so that even after the first uprising by TNSM in the mid of 90’s, local and foreign tourists never felt any threat to their life, and Swat all these years continued to be the second most popular tourist destination after Murree.
Which factors then made it a valley of death, which it currently has become with a spate of suicide and roadside bombings since the mid of July and the consequent battle between the extremists loyal to Maulana Fazalullah and the country’s security forces, operating in the region, as claimed by the Federal government, upon the request of the provincial government of North West Frontier Province?
This is the key question, which is not difficult to answer if an assessment is made of a succession of events in the recent past. During my career as a working journalist, I was myself in the midst of the first TNSM uprising in November 1995, which was forcibly crushed with the help of a security operation by the Frontier Constabulary (FC). At that time, as Taliban were capturing one Afghan province after another, it was having a spillover impact on Pakistani tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Sufi Muhammad’s demand for the enforcement of Sharia in Malakand Division was a direct consequence of the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan. Before the TNSM militants overtook Saidu Sharif airport and other government buildings in and around Mingora, they also allegedly killed a PPP MPA Badiuzzaman from Malakand, when the NWFP government was headed by Aftab Sherpao.
First TNSM Uprising
I remember that after the FC operation, which had claimed around 13 lives of TNSM militants, Sufi Muhammad was paraded in all of the above-mentioned hotbeds of current violence in an armoured vehicle to calm down TNSM militants. As a follow-up to the FC operation, the NWFP government agreed to enforce Sharia order in Malakand Division. The TNSM’s main demand, the replacement of magistrate with a Qazi and civil courts with Sharia courts was partially met. There were troubles in the government-TNSM agreement after some months, which led to the renewal of TNSM activity, but the radical religious organization could not replicate its first uprising.
I safely remember a couple of conclusions that I had drawn from my reporting from the embattled Malakand Division during the 1995 TNSM uprising. First, the traditionally peaceful people of Swat did not support the militant strategy of TNSM. Sufi Muhammad was himself from Dir and his militants were also commonly believed by the Swatis to have descended from the mountains of Dir and Baujaur agencies. "Just look at them! Do you think they physically resemble us?" I would hear this remark quite often while talking to people in Mingora, the central town of Swat. The black turban-clad, Klashnikove-bardar physically stronger and taller TNSM militants would look quite different from relatively thinner and shorter Swatis.
The second conclusive argument that I made after covering the TNSM uprising was that there were several criminal cases registered against TNSM top brass in the civil courts, and the reason why TNSM was demanding the establishment of Qazi courts was to help scores of people loyal to its cause to escape from conviction in the civil court cases. I don’t know how far this motivation behind Sufi Muhammad’s Sharia movement was true, but this is again what I was told by the actual residents of Swat.
The Great Misadventure
To cut a long story short, the TNSM went into the background after the 1995 uprising, and its name was reheard only after the 2001 war against Taliban, as Sufi Muhammad incited the tribal population against the US-led forces in Afghanistan and reportedly took 10,000 tribal people inside Afghanistan to contribute to the Taliban fight against the US Special Forces and the Tajik and Uzbek forces of the Northern Alliance in northern Afghanistan. Nearly 3,000 of the tribal people were killed, and the rest were either rescued by Pakistan or put in Afghan jails.
The government of Pakistan had then blamed Sufi Muhammad for the great misadventure in the name of jihad and he was consequently put in jail, where he still is. Maulana Fazalullah had reportedly accompanied the TNSM fidayeen, but managed to return and, in the absence of Sufi Muhammad from the scene, started to lead the radical organization from his headquarter in Imam Dheri. However, until the security operation against Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa in July, he or thousands of militants he claim to lead did not engage in any significant militant activity.
However, the fact is that the MMA government in the Frontier province, during its five years tenure, did appease Maulana Fazalulla, and that the seeds of the militant campaign that he is leading today against the security forces and the state of Pakistan were essentially sown during this time. However, it is pertinent to mention here that Dir and Malakand were two regions were the religious extremists prevent women from casting their votes in the 2002 election, which was quite a major issue at the time.
During MMA’s rule, Maulana Fazalullah and his associates were able to set up around 32 FM stations in the region, round the clock broadcasting jihadi messages, just as the FM station operated by Pir Rehman in the Khyber agency propagated jihad, even causing sectarian violence in parts of Khyber in the past few years. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Ordinance was not extended to this region. Even while the Capital crisis over Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa was going on, and the security operations against two religious outfits had not yet started, the FM radios operated by Maulana Fazalullah had started issuing Taliban-style fatwas, such as making it mandatory for women in the region to wear Burqas, ordering girls not to attend schools, preventing women from going to work, and asking the Daewoo bus company not to replace its female hostesses with males. Out of sheer fear, the people of the region largely complied with the religious decrees issued by Maulana Fazalullah.
The situation turned violent around the time when the security operation against Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa took place. The Ghazi brothers wrote letters to Maulana Fazalullah and other clerics loyal to TNSM for financial help as well as personnel support. Both were generated by Maulana Fazalullah and his associates. That is why the majority of militants as well as madrassa students at Jamia Faridia, who had gathered at Lal Mosque, with scores of them eventually killed in the security operation, had essentially come from the Malakand Division.
So, there is a direct linkage between the security operation against Lal Masjid and the campaign of militancy that has been waged by extremists led by Maulana Faalullah in the Malakand Division. Maulana Fazalullah and his spokesman Maulana Sirajuddin have categorically stated many times that they will avenge the death of those killed in the security operation against Lal Masjid. The spate of suicide and roadside bombings specifically targeting security forces since the mid of July clearly prove that the extremists led by Maulana Fazalullah are basically reacting to the security operation against Lal Masjid, which, as per government claims, resulting in the death of some 78 militants.
Revenge of Lal Masjid
Since the mid of July, a slightly higher number of security personnel, around 80, have become a victim of militancy in Malakand lone. The number of security personnel dying as a result of militancy by the extremist affiliates of Maulana Fazalullah in Waziristan and elsewhere in the country is aside, and it is even higher that those who laid their lives in Malakand.
Maulana Fazalullah has not only targeted security forces, but also individual politicians whom he perceives to be hostile to his regressive cause in the region. In the aftermath of the security operation against Lal Masjid, for instance, his militants attacked at least two former MPAs and ministers Shujaat Ali Khan and Lala Afzal. The former was accompanied by his four grandsons. All of them were injured, with a bodyguard dead. The house of Matta Nazim Jamal Nasir was first looted and then burnt. He was also injured earlier while accompanying Lala Afzal, an ANP leader from Malakand.
As things stand now, the extremists loyal to Maulana Fazalulla are on a rampage in Malakand. In the strife-torn areas such as Matta, Kabal, Khwaza Khela, and Manga Lowar, they have taken control of the roads. So much so that the bodies of 12 security personnel killed in militant acts since Friday had been lying in open sky in the Manga Lowar area, and only after four days the security forces were able to recover them. The heads of the four of these security personnel were severed and paraded in the Bazar by the extremists. Such tales of inhumanity continue.
Future of Peace Bids
The All Parties Conference that concluded in Chakdara on Tuesday created an eight-member committee to negotiate with extremist forces led by Maulana Fazalullah. They represent a cross-section of religious and political views.
The broader reasons for the growth of extremism in the country could range from a general pubic reaction to the present leadership’s Enlightened Moderation policies, or the general perception that counter-extremism and counter-terrorism policies being pursued by the government are essentially on the asking of the United States. Whatever the reasons, no government will allow its sovereignty to be violated by radical religious outfits such as the one led by Maulana Fazalullah hell bent upon creating mini-states according to realize their narrow-minded bigoted ambitions.
For now, whatever peace bids are on the horizon to prevent further bloodbath in Swat do not appear to bear fruit as the warring side across the valley’s serene river have adopted diametrically opposed positions. My own recollection from the 1995 TNSM uprising tells me, the security forces may eventually score a military success against the forces of Maulana Fazlullah in Imam Dheri, which has already been attacked by gunship helicopters. How to solve a conflict rooted in religious extremism and militancy through political means is the biggest question, and, even of the security operation eventually succeeds, it may take years for the Valley of Death to once again take the place of Pakistan’s second most important tourist destination.