If government claims are to be believed, the Pakistan army has restored the state’s writ in parts of the volatile Swat valley, located in the picturesque North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Militants loyal to a local radical cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, are reported to be on the run after briefly introducing Islamic law and establishing their own Islamic Emirate. Having seized control of the adjacent Shangla district from the militants, the security forces are now making inroads in the upper part of the Swat district, considered to be the stronghold of Fazlullah and his Islamic militia (Daily Times, Lahore, December 2).
Losing control of almost 70 villages of upper Swat district and the consequent surrender of security forces to Fazlullah’s fighters was a severe blow to the morale of the Pakistani troops. The restoration of military control in the restive Swat valley must not only come as a significant morale booster for the security forces, but also for the embattled President Pervez Musharraf, who used the rising tide of militancy in the region as a justification for declaring a state of emergency on November 3.
Reports suggest that the militants left their trenches and fled into nearby hills after sustained operations by Pakistani army infantry backed by helicopter gunships and artillery. According to military officials, more than 250 militants were killed, including Khan Khatab, a top Fazlullah lieutenant who spearheaded militant operations in Matta and Kabal, scenes of some of the fiercest fighting (Dawn, November 27).
Officials also claimed to have arrested fifty militants (including several foreigners) on their way to join Fazlullah in the mountains. Local people reported heavy civilian casualties and the military operations have displaced about half a million people, according to local officials in Swat. Authorities have shut down the notorious pirate FM radio channel run by Maulana Fazlullah to preach jihad against the Pakistani military and what he described as the master of President Musharraf, the United States. The local government replaced his broadcasts by installing its own FM radio station.
Though President Musharraf cited the rising extremism and militancy in Swat as one of the major reason behind taking the unpopular step of declaring emergency rule, there was for two weeks no sign of a ground offensive to stop the unabated march of Fazlullah’s militia. Military operations gained momentum after November 18 when Pakistan’s army deployed a fresh contingent of 15,000 troops for what the military command called an imminent military offensive against Fazlullah’s militants (Daily Times, November 19).
Officials expressed the hope that militants would soon be flushed from the area and the military operation would be finished before the general elections, scheduled for January 8, 2008. However, despite the officials claims of success over the militants, local and ground realities suggest otherwise.
Many residents of Swat, while talking to Jamestown, expressed fear that the departure of the militants for the mountains is most probably a “war strategy” of the local Taliban. To the utter dismay of the authorities, the pirated FM channel is back on the air from an undisclosed location after only a few days. One of Maulana Fazlullah’s close aide’s, Maulana Mohammad Alam, declared that the militants had not been defeated but left their hideouts and trenches to avoid civilian casualties in the valley. Speaking on the illegal FM station (which went back on the air December 1), Maulana Alam said that Maulana Fazlullah and his fighters are safe and ready to bounce back, adding they will now launch their next assault on security forces in a different way. Alam slammed the government and security forces and said they (the Taliban) were forced to pick up guns and will continue their fight against the enemies of Islam (Daily Statesman, Peshawar, December 3).
It is difficult for the local population to believe that Fazlullah’s fighters have retreated, keeping in view his strong rhetoric and his professed determination to embrace martyrdom for the implementation of Sharia law. Local journalists in the Swat valley say that Fazlulah’s spokesman, Siraj Uddin, has hinted at a long guerrilla war against the army, saying Pakistan’s military has to pay a heavy price for spilling “the blood of the innocent people”.
The whole Swat region is under the strong influence of a banned militant organization, Tehreek Nafaz-e-Shariat Muhammadi (TNSM – Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws). The TNSM was founded by the father-in-law of Fazlullah, Sufi Mohammad, who led roughly ten thousand young people to fight the Americans in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. A generation has grown up under the shadow of TNSM and its strict version of Islam, providing Fazlullah with a ready pool of fighters.
Looking at the official claims of success in the Swat military offensive, one is reminded of previous claims of emphatic victories in the Southern and Northern Waziristan military operations. Pakistan’s army began military operations against pro-Taliban tribesmen in South Waziristan in March 2004. Since then Pakistan’s highest officials have claimed time and again to have broken the back of the militants in the Waziristan region, but it’s no secret today that the Taliban are running the show in the border region and are now extending their control to the settled areas of the North West Frontier Province.