Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the aged leader of the banned Islamic group, Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM), was released in Peshawar on April 21 after more than six years of imprisonment as part of the reconciliation efforts undertaken by the newly-elected coalition government of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) (The News International [Islamabad], April 22).
His release is part of an effort to tackle the conflict in the militancy-hit Swat district and restore order in the once peaceful valley. It coincided with the signing of an agreement between the TNSM and the government. Under the six-point agreement, the TNSM renounced the use of force in achieving its goal of enforcing Shari’a (Islamic law) in Swat and other parts of Malakand region (Dawn [Islamabad], April 22). It pledged to respect the institutions of the state and accept the government’s right to establish its writ. The TNSM also distanced itself from elements involved in attacks on security forces in Swat and elsewhere. In return, the government withdrew all pending cases against Sufi Mohammad, commuted his remaining prison term and set him free unconditionally.
Sufi Mohammad was arrested in November 2001 while returning from Afghanistan where he had gone as the head of around 10,000 followers to fight alongside the Taliban against the U.S. military and its allies in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. The majority of his ill-equipped fighters were killed, injured, captured or remain missing. The misadventure robbed his organization of its support in the Swat and Malakand region. Subsequently, the government of President General Pervez Musharraf banned the TNSM along with several other militant Islamic organizations under the Anti-Terrorism Act (see Terrorism Monitor, November 30, 2006). However, TNSM activists secretly continued their political activities while campaigning for Sufi Mohammad’s release. For his part, Sufi Mohammad refused to apply for his release on bail and agreed to suffer imprisonment at Dera Ismail Khan, one of the toughest prisons in the province.
Sufi Mohammad’s son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah, who had accompanied him to fight on the side of the Taliban in Afghanistan and was imprisoned along with him, won his freedom about three years ago and returned to his native Swat to take over the leadership of the local chapter of TNSM (see Terrorism Focus, December 5, 2007). The 32-year-old cleric soon embraced militancy, raised a band of armed followers and began preaching on his illegal FM radio channel. He also started a campaign to ban music and television, forbid polio vaccination and demand segregation in schools. Sufi Mohammad expelled him from TNSM and denounced his use of force while campaigning for enforcement of Shari’a in Swat. In a recent interview at Peshawar’s Hayatabad Medical Complex, where he was shifted by the caretaker government of the NWFP from prison prior to his release, Sufi Mohammad said he would not talk to his son-in-law Fazlullah for disobeying him and violating TNSM discipline (The News International, March 30).
Sufi Mohammad’s release meant that the coalition government in NWFP—comprising the Awami National Party (ANP), a party championing Pashtun nationalism and secularism, and the late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), a left of center secular organization—has decided to use the mainstream TNSM as its partner in tackling militancy and extremism. However, it remains to be seen how much political support Sufi Mohammad and his TNSM still retain in Swat and in the rest of Malakand region following his 2001 jihad disaster in Afghanistan. Sufi Mohammad would also have to work hard to take back the initiative from son-in-law Fazlullah, who has evaded capture and is still fighting more than 20,000 heavily-armed Pakistan Army troops deployed in Swat. Fazlullah has strengthened his position by joining forces with the Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella organization of all militant groups of Pakistani Taliban operating in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Bajaur, Darra Adamkhel and other tribal areas and districts of the NWFP. Baitullah Mahsud, leader of the TTP and the most powerful Taliban commander in Pakistan, would surely come to Fazlullah’s help as he did earlier in case the government’s reconciliation efforts failed to produce results and the low-intensity insurgency continued in Swat.
The Pakistan Army made its intentions clear when Major General Nasser Janjua, commander of the troops that began military operations against militants in Swat in November 2007, declared that Fazlullah would have to surrender to the security forces and face trial in a court of law (Daily Times [Islamabad], April 15). The same point was made by Pakistan’s new prime minister, Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, when he said peace talks would be held with only those militants who give up arms. The United States and Great Britain also favor dialogue with militants willing to use peaceful means of struggle.
The NWFP government constituted a jirga, or council, of six provincial ministers to bring together politicians, clerics, intellectuals and other notables of Swat and Malakand to establish contact with the militants and begin a dialogue to bring the Swat conflict to an end (The News International, April 8). Sufi Mohammad’s release was highlighted as one of the recommendations of this ministerial council, even though it was widely known that the caretaker government formed to hold the February 18, 2008 general elections had already made up its mind to free him in a bid to defuse the situation in Swat. An unofficial jirga of tribal elders in early March reached a different conclusion, however, rejecting government-sponsored jirgas and calling Fazlullah a tool of Pakistan’s intelligence services “who must repent the sins he committed at the behest of the intelligence agencies” (Daily Times, March 6).
The success or failure of the peace initiative in Swat will also determine the fate of the larger dialogue with the Baitullah Mahsud-led TTP to resolve the ongoing and more dangerous conflicts in tribal areas, particularly in Waziristan. However, any attempt by the government to keep militants like Fazlullah and TTP elements out of the dialogue and impose conditions such as fighters laying down their arms will scuttle any chance of bringing the conflict to a peaceful conclusion.