Rahimullah Yusufzai: Swat operation and the fallout beyond

Though the armed forces are carrying out operations against Taliban primarily in Swat, Buner and Lower Dir, the fallout of the action in neighbouring districts and beyond should remain a matter of concern. Dislocated from their bases and scattered as a result of the army assault, the militants are finding sanctuaries in new places and striking in areas outside their traditional strongholds.

This reminds one of Afghanistan in the pre- and post-9/11 period. Prior to the US invasion of the country in October 2001, Al Qaeda was headquartered in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Following the fall of Taliban regime, Osama bin Laden and his men lost most of their sanctuaries in Afghanistan and had to relocate elsewhere. Most came to neighbouring Pakistan, from where some of them embarked on a risky journey to their native countries or to new trouble-spots such as Iraq. The majority stayed put in the region, mostly in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and became a threat to the governments in Kabul and Islamabad by making and strengthening alliance with like-minded militant groups in the two countries. Rather than being contained, Al Qaeda and the Taliban spread their influence beyond borders and become an even bigger threat to the established order than they were when well-entrenched in Afghanistan during the 1994-2001 period. It also became difficult to apprehend them as they were no longer confined to one place and country.

Upper Dir, which became a separate district when Dir was split into two some years ago, is part of Malakand division but it wasn’t supposed to be an active front in the ongoing military operations. But it is fast becoming one due to Taliban activities in the remote Dhog Darra area. The security forces have already bombed the few villages where the Afghan Taliban got refuge and built sanctuaries. Troops also moved artillery batteries to the Khal area to fire at Taliban hideouts in the adjoining Swat valley. Gradually, Upper Dir was getting engulfed in the military action. However, the situation deteriorated following the recent suicide bombing in a mosque during Friday prayers at the Hayagai Sharqi village. The death of 50 villagers, including children, in the attack could have provoked anyone to take revenge. And that is what the aggrieved villagers and their allies are now doing, raising a lashkar, or armed volunteer force, and storming the three pro-Taliban villages – Shatkas, Ghazigay and Salambekay -, because they are convinced the suicide bomber came from there. After months of social boycott of these villagers and clashes, the majority anti-Taliban villages are now bent upon settling scores with the enemy.

For obvious reasons, the government is taking no step to stop the fighting. Instead, it seems to be encouraging or could even be supporting the lashkar to go for the kill. This is the kind of battle that is fuelled by new blood-feuds and is never-ending until one side is vanquished and forced to accept the terms of surrender. Heavily-armed villages and clans hostile to each other cannot co-exist in peace, more so if they are supported and supplied by the government or militant groups such as Taliban. In the past also, the government has backed similar anti-Taliban lashkars in Swat, Buner, Bajaur, Orakzai, Darra Adamkhel and other places. Such a policy has generally caused lot of bloodshed and sowed the seeds of turmoil. The Taliban have ruthlessly retaliated by sending suicide bombers to attack jirgas of tribal elders and clerics hostile to them in Darra Adamkhel, Bajaur and Orakzai or causing harm to anyone in sight and terrorizing entire villages as was the case in Shalbandai in Buner, Hayagai Sharqi in Upper Dir and Mandaldag in Swat where the late anti-Taliban commander Pir Samiullah had dared to raise a lashkar against them.

The Shangla district, lacking a strong civil administration and police, had always been vulnerable to incursions by the militants. However, it never had a strong Taliban presence. Even now most of the Taliban fighters gathered in its Puran and Chakesar areas came from Swat and Buner or crossed over from the mountainous Kala Dhaka, or Torghar area, in Mansehra district. Shangla residents are now suffering and getting displaced due to the Taliban’s decision to set up roadside checkpoints or use the district as a hideout for its retreating cadres. If pushed further, they would cross over to Kala Dhaka and Battagram, where the militants have recently carried out attacks against the police and exploded bombs. Other parts of Mansehra district including Shinkiari and Oghi too have experienced terrorist strikes as part of the fallout of the situation in Swat, Buner and Shangla. Kohistan, another district of Hazara, could meet the same fate as a few hundred Kohistani militants operating in Swat’s Kalam and Bahrain tehsils have reportedly returned home to escape an onslaught by the security forces. They may not sit idle for long and some of them could become active upon receiving instructions from their commanders, who presently are in disarray.

Though Malakand Agency is part of Malakand division, it didn’t fall into the category of the Taliban-infested Swat, Buner and Lower Dir districts where active military operations were planned. However, the militants have struck a few times in Malakand Agency, where the poorly-armed and trained Malakand Levies were deployed until now to provide a semblance of security to the people. The main road to Swat and rest of Malakand division passes through the Malakand Agency and curfew has to be frequently imposed to protect military convoys using the Mardan-Malakand-Chakdarra-Mingora road. The militants are finding it tempting to attack the army convoys using this busy road. Though there is controversy regarding the recent incident in Sakhakot, a town in Malakand Agency, in which the army says the detained TNSM leaders Maulana Mohammad Alam and Amir Izzat Khan were killed along with a soldier in an attack by the militants, it nevertheless showed the vulnerability of the troops to such attacks on this critical route. By the way, the government would have to do a lot more to clear the doubts regarding the killing of the two TNSM leaders, who were in custody of the security forces and hadn’t been charged for any crime. The uncertainty about the whereabouts of the TNSM head Maulana Sufi Mohammad also needs to be cleared because the death and detention of Islamic leaders waging peaceful struggle for Shariah could complicate matters and push their followers to join forces with the Taliban.

More worrying are the Taliban incursions into districts outside Malakand division. Mardan is the prime target for the Taliban due to its proximity to both Buner and Swat. As host of the biggest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) both in and outside the camps, it has received its share of disguised militants waiting for an opportunity to strike back at the security forces and law-enforcement agencies. The recent attack, which employed the classic guerilla tactic of planting and exploding an improvised explosives device (IED) to target a military convoy and then ambushing the troops and police sent as reinforcements, on the Rustam-Buner road showed how crucial has Mardan district become in tackling the militants and stabilizing Buner as well as Swat. Up to 10 soldiers and cops were killed in this attack, which explained how quickly the Swati and Buneri Taliban using local militants adapted themselves to the changed circumstances and planned and executed a deadly strike.

Similar attacks could take place in Swabi, Charsadda, Nowshera and even Peshawar, all part of the vast and fertile Peshawar valley where the battle against militancy and extremism is gradually shifting and where its fate could be eventually decided. In fact, the Peshawar valley is also facing fallout of the military action in the tribal areas of Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai and Darra Adamkhel. It is here that the political elite of the province lives and where the big army garrisons, seat of the government and the commercial hubs are located. By destabilizing the vale of Peshawar, the militants would be hoping to paralyze the government and consolidate their hold in Waziristan and other tribal areas in the south and in Malakand division in the north of the province. (The News, 9 June)

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahimyusufzai @yahoo.com