SWAT – THROUGH THE EYES OF AN INDEPENDENT POLITICAL WORKER
A talk on the current situation in Malakand & Swat was organized by the Amn Tehreek on 23rd July, 2009 at Nehrghar. The speaker Izhar (pseudonym) is a political and social worker from Madyan, Swat.
After appreciating the efforts of volunteers and in general all Lahoris, who have contributed towards lessening the misery of people in this man-made disaster, Izhar refused to categorize refugees as IDPs but argued that they have been evicted from their homes. Izhar started with the history and culture of Swat stating that he considered Swat as only second to Lahore in cultural standing in the country. In 1974, about 2,000 foreigners lived there with expired passports as part of the great wave of “hippies” who came from Europe, but were so taken by the beauty and culture of Swat that they never left. Giving an analogy to describe traditional Swati culture, he argued that Swatis were so mild that it would sometimes be hard to find a strong hearted person to slaughter a chicken for cooking but now there were men who slaughter human beings and ‘zibah’ had become a part of the people’s vocabulary.
The Current Situation:
On the current situation, he said that people wanted a ‘Logical Conclusion’ to this military action, meaning an elimination of Taliban Leadership but out of the 38 member Swat Taliban Shura, no confirmed death/capture of any has been made. A couple may have died accidentally as a result of the ongoing operation.
Further reinforcing his argument that the military has yet to change its dubious policy, he gave the example of “Jarho Banda” (a pasture) where the top Taliban leadership was assembled yesterday and other adjacent Bandas (pastures) such as Fazal Banda. The Army gets close to them but never shells these pastures.
Similarly the hills of “Eelam” (Shahi Dasar, Badre) that separate Swat, Buner and Shangla, were surrounded by the Army with a checkpoint every kilometer or so but the Taliban elements who were camped in these mountains had not yet been attacked by the Army. Instead as a result of these checkpoints it now takes ten hours to cover 6km distance (Khwaza Khela -> Matta).
He was sure that the Army had good intelligence including photos and records of the Taliban as they had even picked up local people who had served the Taliban, giving an example of a person picked up recently whose only crime was that he prepared some food for a group of militants. He claimed that the main target of the operation was not Taliban leadership, as they were not targeted and Fazlullah’s radio station was still operating every two to three days. He speculated that the army would secure Mingora and let the Taliban menace continue in the surrounding areas in the name of gorilla war thus saving face with the international community while keeping their Taliban assets intact.
Mingora was still under curfew with a dire shortage of food items. Refugees who have gone back are demanding to know why they have been sent back when the place is clearly not yet fit for habitation.
The Army’s operational methods sow the seeds of a bigger disaster
The army uses indiscriminate firing when wanting to “flush out” Taliban from a village. First they establish a front some distance away from the village. Then they use heavy artillery to shell the village usually destroying it completely, not caring for civilians. Meanwhile, the people they are supposed to be attacking, the Taliban, have already run away by the time the shelling starts. Thus it is the ordinary people who get caught and now they too have learned to flee their villages when they see the Taliban leaving.
He was especially disturbed because of the burning and destroying of “Taliban” property and houses because the concept of collective punishment did not exist in Swat. The burning of property has never been part of Swati culture and one can’t find examples of it in the last 100 years. Swat is not like Waziristan where a tribal jirga can decide to destroy someone’s property. Even in the time of Wali of Swat, the worst punishment for those who rose up against the Wali was exile while their families were allowed to stay. Only in the Gujjar community of Swat, one group may burn the grass of the other group’s pasture during the course of a vendetta.
The Army is completely uneducated about Swati customs and can’t different between Swat and Waziristan. This tactic of burning down property, rendering people homeless would only further increase resentment and hostility towards the Army & the State. It will only create militants out of ordinary people. He gave an example of a man who had fathered 30 to 40 children and the Army claiming that he was a Taliban sympathizer burnt down all his houses and shops. He argued that women in Swat even those related to Taliban are peaceful & only want to raise their children in security, while these tactics would only lead to disaster.
People of Swat are getting further alienated from the Army & the State when they see these injustices while the Taliban leadership is untouched. These policies will only give rise to sympathy for the Taliban, because the Taliban did not bother people who went their own way while current State policies were causing injury to every citizen of Malakand. Recently, the Army went to a series of villages, made fine speeches and asked the people to nominate ten people from each village who would provide information about the Taliban. No one stepped forward because of the earlier history that whoever gave information about the Taliban to the military met a bad end.
He said that Pervez Musharraf had estimated the Taliban in Swat to be 500 – 600 – against whom 150,000 soldiers have now been deployed who have taken over the whole valley and set up trenches and camps all over the hills. Also, this operation has displaced about 2.5 million citizens
The rise of the Swat Taliban
According to his & friend’s analysis, it is the failure of the state in the political, economic and social arenas that has led to the rise of the Taliban. Swat does not have a tradition of active politics (in terms of popular participation in decision-making). Instead, it is the elite that has controlled Swati society.
Swat existed as a princely state from 1915 to 1969, when the police was known as naukar (servant) of the big Khans, primarily used to keep the ordinary people in check. The common people resented the power of the Khans who controlled and repressed people using the police as well as criminal elements. After the state’s merger with Pakistan, revenue records were used as a means to take common land away from villages and communities and assign it to influential people, generally the Khans. This expropriation led to cases in courts and then to repression of poor people by the Khans. This resentment and hostility towards the unjust social order allowed an entry point for the Taliban. This thesis can be corroborated by the fact that Taliban are the strongest in areas (eg. Matta, Qabal and Charbagh) where Khans have traditionally been very strong while in areas where people had resisted revenue officials keeping their collective ownership of land, there has been very little support for the Taliban.
Furthering elaborating on social context, he gave the example of Bakht Farzand, a Taliban commander in Matta, whose father & brother had been killed by some criminals. These criminals were given protection (panah) by the local khan Afzal Khan Lala (earlier minister & recently honored for his bravery), who refused Bakht’s pleas and used his influence to prevent the registration of a police case. Thus when the Taliban arrived, Bakht joined them wholeheartedly to get justice – his revenge.
The first targets of the Taliban were the police. The people stayed quiet and did not protest as they considered police to be on the payroll of the Khans. The next target was the Khans and again the people remained silent because they had no sympathy for their traditional oppressors. Thus the field became open for the Taliban who were then joined by criminal elements. But more importantly Izhar saw the State’s active role in strengthening the Taliban.
Though examples of State complicity exist aplenty, including years of running an illegal radio station, he cited a specific 2-Dec-2006 news report published in the Jang newpaper’s Islamabad edition, when Amir Zaman, an SHO from Saidu Sharif who had intercepted a truck carrying arms, was directed by his DIG to escort the truck safely to Imam Deri (Fazlullah’s Head Quarter). Additionally, any SP who arrested Taliban–linked personnel would be transferred out the area & the captured persons released. Further, in the 2007 army operation, whoever provided information about the Taliban were mysteriously killed during the curfew hours, including many political activists such as Ahmad Khan and Bakht Baidar. Thus most activists left Swat under death threats while those who stayed were killed.
Additionally it was the mushrooming of madrassas in Swat in the Zia era, the Afghan Jihad and associated jihadi training camps that prepared the ground work for the acceptance of Taliban ideas in Swati society. He argued that the Pakistani State had never developed the culture of its own people terming Arabs & invaders as heroes. It was the State’s anti-India fixation, its ”strategic depth” policy (which had yet to change), which had given space to Wahabism in Swati culture. He said that what he sees in Lahore today (in contrast with what he saw a decade ago) reminds him of Swati culture a few years ago, in terms of how the culture became more accommodating to Taliban ideology.
Conspiracy Theories, Myths & the Domestic Power Nexus
Answering a question regarding the much-hyped presence of foreigners, especially non-Muslims assumed to be Indian agents among the Taliban.
He explained the concept of “local” vs. “non-local” that has gained currency in discussions on the issue. He said that all Taliban in Swat were locals i.e., Pakistanis. If taken in the context of local villages, then it could be claimed that there were “non-locals” in Swat but the reporting such as ‘Non-Locals killed in the operation’ was wrong and misleading. In Swat’s case, non–locals meant people from adjoining valleys, from FATA or from Punjab. In fact, the Taliban movement gained momentum only after Punjabis started participating in it, contributing their resources and manpower. He said that in fact the leadership of the groups supporting the Taliban were in Central & Southern Punjab.
Regarding news stories of Taliban, militants and mullahs found with no circumcision (khatnas – required in Islam), he argued that traditionally people from Waziristan did not perform khatnas and thus those captured could be from Waziristan. He however did not deny the possibility of the presence of foreign agents saying that it was always possible.
He disagreed that secular parties had played their part arguing that the Peace Agreement was not done by political parties but by the ISI. All the seats in the 2008 elections from Swat were either won by ANP or PPP, thus there was no question left of the popular will of the Swatis. He did not have much hope from the ANP or traditional leadership of Swat arguing that even before the peace agreement, ordinary people came together to fight the Taliban in the form of a lashkar only to be disappointed when traditional leaders – Khans (including Afzal Khan Lala) refused to lead them. Additionally, there were examples when a current MPA went to Swat under military security and pointed out houses of his opponents who were not Taliban to be destroyed by the army.
Regarding the Army-Jihadi nexus, he called the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the non-state military wing of the ISI while terming the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) the political wing of the ISI. He argued that from Shehrghar to the entry of Swat where no one was allowed to setup relief camps, Al-Khidmat (Relief wing of JI) had a camp at almost every kilometer.
Izhar’s final words were: ‘Will Strategic Depth improve the lives of the people? Will enmity with India sustain Pakistan? Will making enemy of Afghanistan help the people? These policies have only made things worse since Zia’s time. We only plead with the army, politicians and media to come to a Logical Conclusion in these policies and please forgive the people.’