The fall of Swat

After a year of military operations in Swat, the territory controlled by the terrorists has reportedly increased from 25 percent to 75 percent. On Friday, the army killed 12 Taliban in different parts, but could not prevent the demolition by them of a rest house owned by the ANP’s late leader, Mr Abdul Wali Khan. The party that rules in Peshawar has been systematically decimated in Swat as its allies walk in fear and no longer criticise the Taliban in public, accusing only the army of being “indiscriminate”.

Swat had voted last year for ANP as a liberal alternative to the now defunct MMA because they wanted their home territory to be made safe against the vandalism of the Taliban. But what they have got is the systematic destruction of the female educational infrastructure in Swat by the Taliban and loss of protection by the state. The terrorists had warned last month that if any girls’ schools opened after January 15, they would be bombed. Consequently, after the expiry of the deadline, none of the 400 plus schools has reopened, causing 80,000 girls to go without education for the foreseeable future. Along with them, 8,000 female teachers will be rendered jobless in state sector and private institutions.

The federal information minister, Ms Sherry Rehman, has responded to the questioning in the National Assembly by saying that the government is not oblivious to the situation and will do something about it. But this isn’t terribly credible. The Taliban have already bombed out of existence 122 girls’ schools in Swat while the army operations go on inside a fast shrinking territory of the writ of the state. The inhabitants no longer believe that the state is capable of protecting them and talk on TV channels freely in favour of the army clearing out of the area and the government negotiating with the terrorists to give them what they want, including a literal ban on the public movement of women.

The ANP government began talking peace with the Taliban after coming to power in 2008. It reached an agreement on the enforcement of sharia with the terrorists and even let their founder-cleric out of jail as an earnest of its peaceful intent, but, according to the ANP leaders, the contract was sabotaged by the warlord Baitullah Mehsud who sent in more “foreigners” into Swat to tighten his hold on the territory. Reporters have described youths who behead people in the valley as people who speak differently from the locals and even look like non-Pakistanis.

In Pakistan, the foremost obstacle in pacifying Swat is the national division of opinion. A majority of the people who mould public opinion think that “it is not Pakistan’s war”, and trace it to the cruelties inflicted on the innocent people of Swat by the Musharraf regime. A recent opinion on the plight of Swat was expressed like this: “Swat was totally peaceful until two years ago. Then the government of Pervez Musharraf destroyed its peace. It spilled the blood of innocent people, and now the same innocent people had become greatest oppressors. They are killing each other in the name of Islam. What a great irony that the dictator who loudly proclaimed his enlightened moderation cast Swat into the clutches of religious extremism. And now he is going around the world lecturing on peace”.

But the truth is that Swat saw its trouble first in the mid-1990s with a radical cleric Sufi Muhammad asking for sharia. In 2001, the Sufi joined the Taliban in Afghanistan to fight the Americans. After his arrest, his son-in-law Maulvi Fazlullah unfurled the flag of jihad in Swat and was soon taking orders from the South Waziristan warlord Baitullah Mehsud. Today, Swat lives under the sharia of Fazlullah. Civilian collateral damage has been considerable, and may have caused rebellion in some cases, but most of the “obedience” observable in the valley is because of the fear of beheadings by the terrorists.

The measure of lack of success of military operations in Swat can be had from the fact that the terrorists now have an autonomous state of their own, complete with running sharia courts and an FM radio station exhorting the people to accept the new order or die. They have their own network of intelligence and an information secretary that you can ring up and talk to. Every day the people of Swat wake up to find someone or the other either beheaded or hanged on the Green Chowk of Mingora now called Khuni Chowk. Those who could flee Swat have done so; those who have nowhere to go will live under the terrorists. The “state” will soon have to survive on the economy of contraband and kidnappings in the settled areas of the NWFP.

Pakistan can turn away from the obligation of saving Swat only at the risk of further more dangerous erosion of the state. It is a war that has to be fought and Pakistan cannot afford to lose it. Islamabad must realise that Swat terrorists have their networks in the rest of the country; and last year, Lahore’s girls’ schools had received threats of closure the same way as in Swat. (Daily Times)