The faces of militant commanders for whose capture the government has announced millions of rupees seem all too familiar. Just three weeks before the start of the latest round of military operation in Swat I met most of them — not in their mountainous hideouts, but in the official residence of a top bureaucrat in Mingora, barely a few hundred metres from the army garrison.
Accompanied by dozens of well armed Taliban fighters, Muslim Khan, Sirajuddin, Mahmmod Khan and some others (who are said to be responsible for killings of hundreds of soldiers and civilians) were being hosted by the former commissioner of Malakand, Syed Mohammad Javed.
The only person conspicuous by his absence was Maulana Fazlullah, the man with a head money of Rs50 million. ‘He is in Kabal for some important work,’ I was told by one of his lieutenants.
It was April 12 and the commissioner had just returned from Buner where he had apparently brokered a truce between the Taliban threatening the district after the Swat peace deal and the local Lashkar who had long resisted the militant onslaught. It later transpired that the so-called peace accord virtually disarmed the Lashkar and handed over the control of Buner to Taliban.
There was little doubt that Mr Javed, who was known for close links with Sufi Mohammad, had drawn the accord to the advantage of the Taliban. But even he couldn’t have anticipated the consequences.
It seemed that the militant commanders had gathered at the Commissioner House that evening to celebrate the takeover of Buner after consolidating their hold on Swat on the back of the controversial peace accord.
Sitting in a corner of a large open veranda crammed with gun wielding Taliban fighters, I saw them arriving one by one with their armed escorts. There was Muslim Khan with his unruly grey beard, curly locks cascading down from his black turban, walking arrogantly past the police and paramilitary soldiers.
The man who now has a reward of Rs4 million on his head looked at home in the hospitable setting of the Commissioner House that night. I was taken aback to see top government officials standing there to receive the man who was responsible for ordering the execution of innocent civilians.
Earlier in the day when I went to interview him in Imam Dehri Madressah, he showed me a list of people whose execution orders were to be issued. Among them was a woman whose husband had allegedly served in the US army.
‘We are looking for her and she will soon come under the knife,’ the chief spokesman for the militants said smugly. Interestingly enough, Mr Khan himself had lived in the United States for many years before returning to Swat in 2002 to join Maulana Fazlullah’s ‘holy war’. It was bizarre to see him being entertained by government officials.
Sirajuddin, a former spokesman for Maulana Fazlullah who also has a bounty of Rs4 million for his capture, was huddled in a corner with some of his comrades. A thin framed man, he was appointed by Maulana Fazlullah to look after the rich emerald mines which the Taliban had seized after the February peace deal.
A former left-wing activist, he received his higher education in Kabul in 1980s during the communist rule in Afghanistan. He planned to join Lumumba University, but had to return home for reasons not known.
His transformation from a hard core socialist to a radical Muslim came in late 1990s when like many young men he fell under the spell of Maulana Fazlullah’s fiery sermons.
I met Sirajuddin for the first time in November 2007, just few weeks after the start of the first army operation in Swat. The area around Dehri was under militant control. Masked gunmen were entrenched in their bunkers just a few hundred metres from Saidu Sharif airport, where army troops had taken up positions. The sound of artillery shells landing was getting ominously closer. The meeting abruptly ended after a shell exploded outside the house where we were sitting. He looked triumphant when I met him again on the evening of April 12.
More shock was in store when later that evening I saw Faqir Mohammed walking in with a large entourage. Escorted by an Uzbek bodyguard he was whisked inside a large hall where a number of commanders squatted on a carpeted floor.
One of the top leaders of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Faqir Mohammed, has been spearheading the bloody war against Pakistani forces in Bajaur tribal region.
Because of his close links with al Qaeda, security agencies considered Faqir Mohammed more dangerous than Baitullah Mehsud. The presence of Pakistan’s most wanted militant leader at the Commissioner House that evening, when the fighting still raged in Bajaur, was intriguing, to say the least.
The widespread public cynicism about the action against militants was not without any basis. It is almost four weeks now since the army launched the new offensive against the militants in Swat and Buner, dislocating more than three million people and leaving around 100 soldiers killed.
The army now seems determined to eliminate Fazlullah and his commanders. ‘But will there be any accountability of those who were responsible for the return of Taliban in Malakand division. Could not the current devastation have been avoided if these wanted men were eliminated earlier instead of being patronised by the administration,’ wondered a Swat resident now forced to live with his family in Mardan.