Swat: Last Khan standing

Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Sartaj Khan

The militants in Swat once again attacked the veteran Pashtun nationalist leader Mohammad Afzal Khan on Jan 11 in his native village of Bara Durshkhela, in the Matta area in upper Swat. Mohammad Afzal Khan is the only feudal and political leader who is determined to oppose the Fazlullah-led Taliban in Swat. He shows courage in standing before the militants despite many attacks and losses: his relatives, guards and property are attacked and bombed time and again. Despite the fact that the militants control 90 per cent of the valley, their victory is considered incomplete until they conquer the house of Durshkhela’s khan.

The situation is not in favour of the fuedals and politicians of the valley. Like many in Swat, “Khan Lala,” as he is known, also has some reservation about the role of the army and the intelligence agencies. However, he had desperately asked the government and the army to provide weapons to people against the Taliban. It seems that in the present circumstances it will not be possible for anyone in Swat to organise a ‘lashkar’ after the killing and humiliation of Pir Samaiullah Khan by the Taliban.

After the 1970s peasant movement in the valley, the rural poor now challenge the fuedals and notables in Swat. The control of the khans over society is deteriorating every day. It encourages the subordinate groups and the landless to retaliate. Khan Lala is attacked by a goldsmith, or a member of a non-agriculture subordinate group traditionally considered inferior. Traditionally the goldsmiths are not entitled to have land in Pakhtun society. They are service-providers to the landed classes known as Pakhtun. The foot soldiers of the Taliban come from the lower stratum of this society. They are determined to settle scores with fuedals and notables. The opposition from the subordinate group of his native village is a dangerous and unacceptable development for Khan Lala.

Though Khan Lala is best known for his agenda of unification of Pashtuns across the Durand Line, he is not considered a separatist. The veteran nationalist leader, who is the biggest feudal of Swat, is at the same time well-entrenched in the power corridors of the state he is supposed to be trying to get rid of. He had served as provincial and federal minister before he was marginalised by his own party, the ANP, which he rejoined some years ago. He and his group in the party are marginalised by another group led by a minister from lower Swat with the support of the ANP leadership. He was even ignored during a peace accord with the Taliban last year, to the surprise of many people.

Khan Lala is admired by friends and foes alike for facing the Taliban. For two years he has been urged by government officials and his supporters to leave the area. Khan Lala has turned down all such suggestions so far. His friends say that a conspiracy is being hatched against him. They apprehend that the Taliban are backed by the army. The supporters of Khan Lala are not clear about the situation, but they criticise the army, the Taliban, the provincial government and the ANP. One of his admirers and supporters said to me that “the party and the government want to humiliate Khan Lala too.” These alleged opponents are said to be worried about the popularity and respect Khan Lala enjoys because of the great losses he is suffering. “He is a Pakhtun. In spite of leaving his people he will prefer to die like Najib,” said his supporter, referring to the late president Najibullah of Afghanistan.

Mohammad Afzal Khan has chosen a place in history for himself. From the gravity of the situation it seems he is up against insurmountable odds. It is a do or die situation for the veteran nationalist leader. His opposition to the Taliban puts his opponent in unfavourable position, especially the nationalist leadership of the ANP. In any case, Mohammad Afzal Khan will be remembered as a brave leader of the landed classes and of Pakhtun nationalism. (The News)

The writer is an activist and independent researcher. Email: sartaj2000@yahoo.com