Afzal Khan Lala: Veteran Pashtun leader defies Swat Taliban

Veteran Pashtun leader defies Swat Taliban

* Three-time attack survivor Afzal Khan on top of Taliban’s most-wanted list
* Favours military action, says government has to regain control

ISLAMABAD: Veteran ethnic Pashtun politician Muhammad Afzal Khan has refused to leave home in Swat, even though the Taliban have repeatedly tried to kill him, and says the people should stand up to the militants.

Swat was, until recently, one of Pakistan’s top tourist destinations, but the Taliban have all but taken over the scenic mountain valley, imposing their severe interpretation of Islamic law and slaughtering opponents with impunity.

Many families have fled, while residents say many policemen have either deserted or simply refuse to act against the Taliban, who have shot, blown up or beheaded numerous officers.

But Khan, an 82-year-old former cabinet minister known as Afzal Lala, or Afzal the Elder, has chosen to stay on to try to rally resistance to the Taliban.

“I’m from this soil. It’s my home. My tribe is here,” Khan told Reuters in a telephone interview. “I want to live among my people. I won’t run away.”

The Taliban’s grip on the valley, just 130km northwest of Islamabad and away from the lawless Afghan border, highlights Pakistan’s deteriorating security.

The government has vowed to regain control of the valley by talking to the Taliban who lay down their arms. But there’s no sign of that.

Top target: The Taliban have tried to kill Khan three times and have placed him on top of a list of politicians and prominent residents they have demanded appear before their ‘courts’. Residents refer to the list as a ‘hit list’.

Khan blames the government for failing to provide proper security, leading to the exodus of fearful people from the valley, and says people have to stand their ground. “I ask my friends and the people of Swat to return to their homes. It’s our land. It’s our problem, we have to sort it out.”

As well as attacking the security forces, the Taliban have banned girls from classes and destroyed about 180 schools while broadcasting edicts and threats over their illegal FM radio. They have threatened to throw acid on men who do not grow beards and recently killed a woman singer and left her body in a square in the valley’s main town.

Military action: Khan is a member of the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party that rules the North West Frontier Province and is part of the ruling federal government coalition.

The party opposes the Taliban, many of whom are also Pashtun, and several of its members have been killed by the militants and its leaders have been targeted by suicide bombers. Most party leaders have fled from Swat.

Khan is in favour of military action against the Taliban, saying the government had to regain control. “If the government fails, if your last option is exhausted, then this region will fall into their hands,” he said, adding that talks should only start “if militants laid down their arms”.

The Taliban, led by rebel cleric Fazlullah, are trying to set up their own administration, including their ‘Islamic courts’, but Khan said no one took that seriously. “I don’t accept it, the people don’t accept it,” he said. But many people failed to understand why the military had not gone after the Taliban, he said. The military launched a big offensive in the valley in late 2007. The Taliban withdrew to the remote side valleys to avoid government artillery and slipped back later.

Khan, who lives in a well-guarded house surrounded by fruit trees, said he had faith. “Being a Muslim, I have faith in Allah. Nothing can happen to me no matter if Fazlullah puts my name on his list or not.” reuters (Daily Times)