The crisis in Swat has gripped the attention of the nation these past few days.
The televised display of hovering helicopter gunships blasting away at militants, thousands of helpless civilians seeking refuge in the plains and crumpled bodies littering the countryside, has managed to numb most of us into a bewildered state of shock and grief.
Your Blogger who has over the years visited Swat three times, remembers it as a place of spectacular beauty painfully marred with human poverty. It is not a small area either - according to the 1998 census Swat had a population of 1,257,602, making it the third most populous district in NWFP. Area wise it is the fourth biggest district in the province.
Since its integration into NWFP in 1969, little has been done to improve the lot of the Swat's inhabitants. Geographic isolation combined with deprivation of progress allowed post-Afghan war fanaticism to make inroads among some of the populace.
To make some sense of the conflict your Blogger now attempts a look at Swat’s recent history.
In the last fifteen years Maulana Sufi Mohammed clearly emerges as a key player in Swat’s present state of chaos.
Sufi Mohammed quit the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1992 to form Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM). In keeping with the stern Wahabi variant of Islam the TNSM sought to impose Sharia rule in Pakistan.
In 1994, under Sufi Mohammed, the TNSM led an armed uprising against the Benazir Bhutto-led PPP government by seizing the civilian airport in Saidu Sharif, Swat and taking over district courts and police station. Some 40 people, including 12 security force personnel, were killed in a week of fighting before the government launched a military operation to quell the rebellion. Following a cease-fire, on November 8, 1994 TNSM released 50 government officials in Matta, and the government agreed to enforce Sharia in Malakand and parts of Swat district.
(Interestingly enough, during this 1994 uprising a religious scholar, enlisted by the government to negotiate with the rebellious Sufi Mohammed, noticed the presence of one particular man during his meetings with the Malakand district commissioner and later with Sufi Mohammed. The DC had visibly deferred to him and the TNSM chief referred to the intruder as one of ‘his own men’. The interloper subsequently turned out to be NWFP’s ISI chief. This led the religious scholar to the understandable conclusion that Sufi Mohammed's campaign for the introduction of Islamic law was not a real one; rather, it was a move fully sponsored by ISI to destabilize Benazir Bhutto.)
In late October 2001 Sufi Mohammed took 10,000 or so armed volunteers of the TNSM to fight the US-organised Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. This motley crowd of jihadis went armed with ‘Kalashnikovs, rocket launchers, missiles, anti-aircraft guns, hand grenades and swords’.
Much to Sufi Mohammed’s embarrassment the Taliban announced that the TNSM volunteers were not welcome in Afghanistan and suggested that they return to their homes, “seemingly out of mistrust for the true motives of Sufi Mohammed, whom they believe to have been in contact with the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan.”
Despite Taliban’s rejection the TNSM volunteers entered Afghanistan to be mowed down by US air strikes, using lethal Daisy Cutter bombs, and then slaughtered by the battle hardened Northern Alliance troops. A few hundred survivors were captured by various Afghan warlords, who subsequently sold them back to their relatives in Pakistan for huge sums of money. Only a handful of lucky ones, including Sufi Mohammed, who deserted the battlefield, were able to flee back to Malakand.
After his ignominious return the Pakistani government detained Sufi Mohammed. He was tried by the Kurram Agency assistant political agent who found the cleric guilty, under the Frontier Crimes Regulations, of ‘entering the country without valid documents’ and for ‘possession of unlicensed arms’. Sufi Mohammed was sentenced to imprisonment for seven years.
The death of thousands of illiterate TMSM volunteers caused a substantial drop in political support for the cleric. His disastrous incursion in Afghanistan had revealed his incompetence and complete lack of combat skills.
And then on January 15, 2002 General Musharraf banned the TNSM as a terrorist organisation.
The TNSM remained inactive for a period of four years until the devastating earthquake of 8 October 8 2005. The followers of Sufi Mohammed soon capitalised on the human catastrophe and used it to revitalize their organisation. Soon volunteers from the TNSM led the vanguard of the relief work in the devastated areas of the NWFP. Not surprisingly, in the absence of timely official help, the locals came to admire these volunteers for their selfless devotion in helping the quake victims.
However, there was a downside to all this. The TNSM began promoting the idea that the earthquake was divinely sent punishment for the misdeeds committed by the locals. Its followers called upon the quake affected families to destroy their televisions, VCD players and audio CD/cassette players to avoid further retribution.
Fazle Hayat, the son-in-law of Sufi Muhammad, took over the TNSM under the nom de guerre of Maulana Fazlullah. He soon began making broadcasts from an illegal FM radio station installed in his mosque at Imam Dheri, in the Mutta Tehsil of Swat district. Delivering two sermons a day, he preached his version of militant Islam.
Now known also as ‘Maulana FM Radio’, he began drawing huge crowds to the weekly Friday prayers held in his Imam Dheri mosque – estimated at 30,000 by some reports. In April 2007, the press reported that some 10,000 people had set their electronic equipment on fire as a result of Fazalullah’s FM broadcasts which had declared television and music to be un-Islamic.
Soon barbers were being directed not to shave beards and shops selling CDs and music cassettes were ordered to close down. Girls' schools and colleges in the area were warned that unless all their students began wearing burqas, they would face a violent reaction. Even the local polio-immunisation program came under attack for being American-Zionist plan to make Muslim children sterile.
Fazlullah soon formed his law and order agency as well, which began taking charge of traffic regulation duties in Malakand and Swat areas. Recently a TNSM group travelling in 15 machinegun-fitted vehicles announced a new structure of judicial dispensation and local administration. Having distributed cell-phone numbers members of this new force asked all public complaints, problems and disputes should now addressed to them. In the meanwhile the local police, in fear of their lives, locked themselves in their thanas.
For all intent and purposes, due to the inactivity of Islamabad, Fazullah had taken control of Swat. As late as last week Newsweek was reporting: Mullah Fazlullah rides a black horse and commands hundreds of men under the noses of a nearby Pakistani Army division that seldom leaves its barracks.
By ignoring the issue for so long Islamabad had allowed the militants to become entrenched in Malakand, Dir and Swat.
Violent action is never the surest way to success. Winning the hearts and minds of the locals should have been given precedence but that has never been Musharraf’s way.
Critics have already begun to question the timing of the action. With the Supreme Court verdict, on Musharraf’s legitimacy as a presidential candidate, due any day now, the Swat upheaval just adds the cherry to the existing state of disarray within the country.
By creating a perfect new storm in the NWFP, are we seeing an extra attempt to justify a martial law that may just be around the corner? Only time and the Supreme Court verdict will provide the answer.