Nirupama Subramanian

The big lesson from Swat is: setting up religious groups and sponsoring their jihad is one thing, and hoping to bring these groups back under control is quite another.

Known as the Switzerland of Pakistan, it is a place remembered for its orchards and natural beauty, where the singing, dancing and skiing brought in thousands of tourists every year. Swat, a district of 1.7 million people in the North-West Frontier Province, a five-hour drive from Islamabad, is now better known as the first “settled” district in Pakistan to have been taken over almost entirely by the Taliban. As Kishwar Naheed, an eminent poet and feminist, recently said: “They are sowing blood in the orchards these days.” The singers and dancers have fled or renounced their vocation, and a bomb ripped the ski resort many months ago.

On January 15, girls’ schools in the district closed down on an edict from the Tehrik-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, the Swat chapter of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. The TNSM is headed by Maulana Fazlullah, also known as Mullah Radio after the FM station he has illegally run for nearly three years, using it to preach an extreme interpretation of Islam. An estimated 80,000 girls have had their education cut off. The government declared an extended winter vacation and has promised to reopen the schools by March 1. But with 183 schools blown up — including five on Monday — the promise seems unbelievable. Even if the schools reopen, there will be no teachers because under the de facto Taliban rule in Swat, women cannot work.

The Taliban has ordered that women should not step out of home unescorted by a male family member. Shopkeepers have been told not to sell goods to unescorted women. In Mingora, main town in Swat, an area known as Green Square has been renamed “khooni chowk” (blood square) or “chowk zibakhana” (slaughterhouse square) after the daily stringing up of two or three bodies of people seen to have defied the Taliban, even for mild criticism in a private conversation.

The Taliban’s parallel government in the district includes collection of ushr, the Islamic tax of one-tenth of agricultural produce; its courts dispense speedy justice, from fines to lashes and beheadings. Fearing for their lives, Swat’s elected representatives — two members of the National Assembly and seven of the Provincial Assembly — have not visited their constituencies in months. According to a provincial legislator who has lived in Peshawar for the past five months, the Taliban has offered rewards of Rs.1.5 crore for killing an MPA, and Rs.2 crore for an MNA. An estimated 3,00,000 people have already fled Swat to Peshawar, Karachi and Islamabad.

“People of Swat don’t like to live as refugees in camps, that is why we are not visible IDPs (internally displaced people). We are living with friends or relatives. We will live 100 to a room but we won’t live in camps. Those of us who can afford it have taken houses on rent,” said another man elected to an important public office in the district. He left a year ago after a bomb attack on his car, and now lives in Islamabad.

The Army has not been able to help. Sent to rein in Mullah Fazlullah in October 2007, the military claimed successes through November that year, promising to deliver Swat back to its people by the second week of December. But that did not happen. In May 2008, the secular Awami National Party, which came to power after the elections in February, entered into a peace deal and ceasefire with Fazlullah. The agreement failed within weeks, and the Army had to be called out in July. But the Taliban appears to have won, despite six months of operations.

The fall of Swat was sinking into the national consciousness around the same time the involvement of the Pakistan-based Laskhar-e-Taiba in the Mumbai attacks became apparent. Most Pakistanis see the two as separate events, and consequently have two different reactions. There is widespread outrage at what is happening in Swat. To the government’s admission that Ajmal Amir ‘Kasab’ is Pakistani, the reaction has been one of wounded national pride.

Nonetheless, the big picture emerging from both is the same: jihadist groups — whatever their particular names — once raised by the state as proxies for Afghanistan and Kashmir, and their ideologies, are eating at the vitals of the country, their violence at home and abroad threatening to push Pakistan out of the mainstream international community.

Pakistan has, however, tied itself up in knots on the issue. With distinctions between “good” Taliban and “bad” Taliban, and between groups such as Haqqani’s whose operations are confined to Afghanistan — and therefore “strategic assets” — and those who are hitting inside Pakistan like Beithullah Mehsud, but who can also become “our Muslim brothers,” “compatriots,” “miscreants,” “misguided youth,” “criminal gangs,” and all these separate from the “Punjabi groups” such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, there appears to be no compass any more to arrive at meaningful decisions to deal with the challenge of religious militancy and extremism.

The ANP now openly blames the Army for not fighting the Taliban in Swat effectively enough. “If they want, the Army can clear the entire district in one minute,” is the popular refrain. On the floor of the NWFP Assembly, an ANP legislator declared that the “Taliban and soldiers fight under a single commander.” Senior ANP leaders allege a more sinister conspiracy. Hasham Baber, the party’s additional general secretary, believes that Swat is being primed as the new “safe haven” for all manner of militants “who will use it to launch attacks into Afghanistan and India.” The presence of militants owing allegiance to Punjabi groups in the district is widely talked about.

The Army, for its part, blames the ANP for making the deal with the TNSM, allowing its members to regroup in areas soldiers cleared a few months earlier. Independent commentators say the Army’s main worry is that an all-out operation would cause unacceptable collateral damage as the militants are using civilians as human shields. The military is not prepared for this, especially as many voices in the media and civil society have been blaming army operations for the Talibanisation of Swat. Commentators also point to the severe military operation in neighbouring Bajaur agency, which has apparently been successful.

But recent remarks by Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha to a German magazine have not helped the Army’s case. In the extraordinary interview carried by Der Spiegel, since described by the military as quoting Lt. Gen. Pasha “out of context,” the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence said the Taliban “believe jihad is their obligation,” and asked why the outfit should not “be allowed to think and say as they please,” describing this as “freedom of opinion.” Earlier, at the height of the tensions with India over Mumbai, Lt. Gen. Pasha declared Beithullah Mehsud and Mullah Fazlullah “patriotic” Pakistanis for offering a ceasefire with the military and to fight alongside the Army in the event of a war with India.

The elected official from Swat had a different view of Fazlullah: “The district has 1.7 million people. The Taliban may be 5,000 to 6,000. It’s like three people walked into a plane and hijacked it, and there’s no rescue.”

According to district officials, of the 1,725 policemen in Swat, only 290 are left, the others having deserted or never returned from leave. The Army is confined to its camps or checkpoints. The Hindu spoke to several people from Swat, now in hiding in Islamabad, and they all found it inexplicable that the Army and Taliban checkpoints co-existed within a few kilometres of each other, and that the military had not even jammed Fazlullah’s FM radio. Nor has there been any arrest of TNSM cadres.

The few who have offered resistance to the TNSM have been eliminated. Pir Samiullah, a local landlord and spiritual leader, issued a fatwa against Fazlullah’s jihad. Fazlullah mounted an armed attack on the Pir. Some 150 farmers who worked on Samiullah’s lands put up a battle but could not save their leader. The Army did not show up. The Pir’s followers buried his body but the Taliban, afraid it would turn into a shrine, exhumed the body and strung it up as an example of what would happen to those who did not fall in line.

The big lesson from Swat, according to observers who believe that the Army has genuinely tried to enforce the writ of the state in the district, is that setting up religious groups and sponsoring their jihad is one thing, and hoping to bring these groups back under control is quite another. The LeT operation in Mumbai is held up as the biggest example of this, with the view widespread within Pakistan’s influential circles that the ISI truly had no idea about it and was caught as unawares as the country’s political leadership.

There are also those who think that the country is not prepared to own up its real enemy. “When it wanted, the nation came together within a few hours, all the political parties assembled in Islamabad to pass a unanimous resolution against India in half-an-hour,” said the ANP’s Hasham Baber, referring to the recent all-party resolution on the Mumbai attacks. “But we have had a war raging within the country for the last so many years and we have not been able to formulate a policy to deal with it.”