Is the NWFP Slipping out of Pakistan’s Control?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 22

A discredited military regime in the center, the problematic rule of a religious political alliance (Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA), ill-planned military operations in the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) belt and the growing unpopularity of the “war on terror” have all tarnished the socio-political fabric of society in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan. The growth of Talibanization and insurgency in parts of the NWFP are consequences of these factors. Events in the province’s Swat district such as the rise of the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM, Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws) are signs of the increasing security threat to the state of Pakistan. It is difficult, however, to pinpoint the real nature of the crisis. Framing the overall crisis in the region as a “Pashtun insurgency” provides a context, but it doesn’t answer all the relevant questions. For instance, polls indicate that a Punjabi political figure Imran Khan (cricket legend and head of Tehreek-i-Insaf, Justice Party) now has more support among the people of the NWFP than the Islamist MMA [1].

This essay is an attempt to understand where the NWFP stands today and to examine the potential consequences of President Pervez Musharraf’s policies for the province [2].

Understanding the NWFP

Located on both banks of the river Indus, the NWFP covers an area of 28,772 sq. mi., with an approximate population of 21 million, stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the deserts in the south where it is bordered by the Baluchistan and Punjab provinces of Pakistan ( The province is divided into 24 administrative districts, with 83 percent of the population living in rural areas. About 70 percent of NWFP residents are Pashtuns with Pashto as their mother-tongue and twenty percent are Hindkowans (sometimes referred to as Punjabi Pathans) with Hindko (very similar to Punjabi) as their primary language. Other languages include Chitralis, Kohistanis and Seraiki, a Punjabi dialect (The News, November 25, 1997). By comparison, in the neighboring FATA almost 99 percent of the population is Pashto speaking. About 15 percent of the total NWFP population belongs to the Shiite sect of Islam (including Ismaili Shiites). There are also small Christian and Sikh communities in the province (around 3 percent). In the domain of social sector indicators, 46 percent of the province’s population lives below the poverty line while the literacy rate is at a low 38 percent and marked by gender disparities (Asian Development Bank Report, August 2005).

Since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, there have been many transformations in the political orientation of the people, ranging from the rise of secular nationalist forces (such as the National Awami Party, or NAP) in the early years to the growth of the Islamist Jamiat-i-Ulema-e-Pakistan (Assembly of Pakistani Clergy) in the early 1970s. The 1980s Afghan war introduced a militant flavor to the politics of the NWFP as Peshawar and adjacent tribal areas became home to mujahideen from all over the Muslim world. The dynamics of the area were changed by the spread of madrasahs, the presence of CIA personnel, the influx of Saudi petro-dollars and the establishment of training camps by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI).

In the 1988-99 democratic period, both the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif’s faction of the Muslim League alternated in ruling the province. The Awami National Party (ANP), a successor of the secular NAP, has also been an influential player since the 1990s and a coalition partner in governing the volatile province.

Current Trends in the NWFP

As briefly indicated above, the NWFP has been a victim of Pakistan’s regional policy and international politics. The wounds of the 1980s Afghan war in the shape of religious militancy, the drug trade and the nefarious role of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies in the area still haunt the province. Consequently, the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s had a deep impact on Pashtun identity and politics. The madrasahs that played a large part in producing the Taliban are still operational. The Western response to the challenge posed by al-Qaeda’s presence, at time half-hearted and on occasions ill-conceived, further complicated the crisis. The military strategy adopted by the United States and partly implemented by the Pakistani army was based on ignorance of the realities on the ground. The net result has been a growing frustration and disgust among the local people.

Before the NWFP government was dissolved on October 10, the MMA failed to improve the social and developmental indicators in the area, primarily due to incompetence and lack of resources. As a result the Islamists lost some support in the public eye. In the midst of all this, a new wave of religious bigotry is taking over the rural areas of the NWFP, where local extremists (inspired by the Taliban in Afghanistan and in the FATA) are trying to convince people their dogmatic version of Islamic law is the only ray of hope. However, in urban centers and non-Pashtun areas (Hindko speaking) of the NWFP, centrist and leftist political forces still hold ground. Sunni militants have also failed to make any inroads with the Shiite population. The Christian and Sikh communities, however, are under tremendous pressure from the militant forces, often receiving threatening letters with ultimatums for converting to Islam (Daily Times, May 19). Shiites of Dera Ismail Khan and Kohat are also regularly targeted and increased sectarian tensions have led to recent Shiite-Sunni battles in Parachinar (Kurram agency in the FATA). This trend is likely to gain momentum in coming months due to the advent of the Islamic month of Muharram, when Shiites (as well as many Braelvi Sunnis of South Asia) commemorate the tragedy of Imam Husayn’s martyrdom at Karbala. Some other notable trends in the NWFP area include:

• In various districts adjacent to the FATA, Taliban and local militant forces are gaining ground—especially in Karak (Dawn, October 12), Tank (Herald Magazine, April), Lakki Marwat (Daily Times, April 13), Bannu (Daily Times, April 5), Kohat (Daily Times, March 31) and Dera Ismail Khan (Dawn, January 30). All of these districts border Waziristan. The activities of religious militant groups in the area include closing girls’ schools, the bombing of video and music shops, a ban on shaving beards, the strict imposition of the burqa/hijab (head to toe veil) for women and attacks on NGOs, especially those employing women (The News, November 9). It is relevant to mention that the Taliban added a dangerous new dimension to their militancy campaign in March this year, when they began forcing schoolchildren in a small town in Tank district to sign up for suicide bombing missions. According to a credible report in the April edition of Karachi’s Herald magazine, at least 30 schoolchildren in Tank district were abducted for this cause, sending shock waves through the area and triggering a wave of migration from the town. It is pertinent to point out one incident in this regard—in response to militants’ efforts to recruit school-going kids, a school principal had the courage to call in the police to stop this activity. The local police station chief responded but was brutally killed by the militants on the spot. The principal was kidnapped the following day from his home and he too paid for his courage in standing up to these extremists with his life—his body was later found in South Waziristan (The News, March 30). The state witnessed this mayhem from a distance.

• In Swat district, Maulana Fazlullah of the TNSM has been able to enforce his writ and he publicly foisted Taliban flags on at least five major police stations in the area after removing the flag of Pakistan (Rediff India Abroad, November 6). TNSM has successfully terrorized the people of Swat and raised significant money from the area at gunpoint. Their gangs regularly disarm security personnel, take over government buildings and have introduced a parallel justice system based on their extreme version of Sharia law (Dawn, November 9). Fazlullah also runs more than two dozen FM radio stations propagating his extremist views. Very recently, military units have entered the area and stiff battles are underway to bring the area under the government’s control. It is curious, however, why Musharraf never targeted the TNSM communication and media network before. This is in stark contrast to Musharraf’s clampdown on liberal media outlets after the November 3 emergency rule, when he even went to the extent of pressuring the government of Dubai to stop the transmission of two major Pakistani electronic news networks (Geo TV and ARY channel).

• In June of this year, the National Security Council under the leadership of General Musharraf discussed in detail a report prepared jointly by the leading intelligence agencies of the state about the growing influence of Talibanization in the area. The meeting was told that the following districts of NWFP had been affected by varying degrees of militancy and extremism: Tank, Lakki Marwat, Bannu, Kohat, Hangu, Dera Ismail Khan, Peshawar, Mardan, Charsadda, Mansehra, Swat, Malakand and Dir (Dawn, June 23). It is important to note that the report also mentioned that the “presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, lingering political disputes in the Muslim world (Arab-Israel issue) and a growing feeling among Muslims that they are under attack from the West are major contributory factors behind the growing insurgency in the region.”

Coming back to the main contents of the report, it is ironic that despite this analysis at the highest level of government, nothing concrete was done to halt the slide into chaos. This criminal negligence and lack of action can be understood, however, in the light of another development. Earlier this year the Military Intelligence Directorate of the Pakistani army reportedly prepared a long-term analysis of Pakistan’s relationship with the United States, projecting a downturn in U.S. interest in Afghanistan beginning in 2007 (The Huffington Post, November 14). The assessment suggested that Pakistan would have to tackle rising internal Talibanization by itself. Past and current practices of Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies indicate that they must have concluded earlier that Pakistan would yet again need a “working relationship” with the Taliban to pursue its interests in Afghanistan and to compete with Indian and Iranian goals in the region. If this analysis is accurate, then this also explains why Maulana Fazl-ur-Rahman (leader of one of two factions of the Deobandist Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, or JUI) is being friendly again towards the Musharraf regime. The new attitude may be the result of guarantees that the NWFP will remain under his suzerainty and might explain why he is not challenging Musharraf openly even when all other major political forces are gunning for the president. To reach out to the United States in this context, Fazl unexpectedly gave a pro-U.S. statement after meeting U.S. diplomats last month, declaring that tribesmen in the FATA are not against Washington-sponsored development projects and that the United States is sincere in developing the area (The Post, October 22). It is questionable, however, whether Fazl will be able to manage the new militant forces in the area. Here we must distinguish between religious political forces like JUI and militant forces such as the Taliban and TNSM. Religious political forces want to participate in electoral politics whereas militant organizations dislike democratic institutions and want to establish an Islamic caliphate system with Sharia being the law of the land, within or even without Pakistan. There are indeed linkages between these two political groups but neither effectively controls the other.


Pakistan’s military establishment is quite skeptical of U.S. interests in the region and elements close to the army often complain that the U.S. administration has not involved Pakistan in their decision-making about Afghanistan. Pakistan’s leaders view Afghanistan as part of their “area of influence” and the U.S.-Pakistani mutual distrust in this regard is a failure on the part of both nations. There is a conspiracy theory doing the rounds in the NWFP which maintains that the United States, behind the scenes, is pushing for a Pashtun buffer state in the region. Some Pakistani media reports and official statements also voice concerns about India’s role in supporting militants in the FATA and the NWFP (Statesman, November 22; The News, November 15). For ordinary people, this has led to confusion and further disorientation.

The absence of credible democratic institutions has severely damaged the body politic of the province. Lack of investment for education is another potent factor. Districts where insurgents and militants are thriving have the worst literacy rates in the province. The Musharraf model of government (which is autocratic and legally flawed) instead played into the hands of religious extremist forces. In many cases, crisis situations were allowed to get worse, as in the case of Swat. Now with a major military push in progress, the TNSM will be tackled strongly and the result will be hailed as a major victory in the international market. But this is no permanent solution, since TNSM remnants will certainly raise their heads again given the prevailing circumstances in the region.

The NWFP is not likely to physically slip out of Pakistan’s hands, but the province today is certainly in the eye of the storm. Religious political forces have lost some of their support base (Daily Times, November 22) due to poor governance and the MMA is not expected to do well in the coming elections because of internal divisions. Musharraf’s arbitrary imposition of emergency rule (read: martial law) has targeted those very forces which can challenge extremists. Many human rights activists and lawyers in the NWFP were arrested and top judges of the NWFP high court known for their progressive views and integrity have been sent home. Among the militants, however, this action of Musharraf is being interpreted as his weakness, further emboldening their activities. Pakistan is faced with a long struggle to return a measure of stability and normalcy to the province.


1. The survey is accessible at:

2. The analysis in this article is based on author’s recent interviews (through telephone and e-mail) with about a dozen persons in the NWFP, including teachers, university students, journalists and politicians.