The Swat Conflict: An Arc of Instability Spreading from Afghanistan to Central Asia and Xinjiang

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 13

A Mountain Road Near the Malakand Division in NWFP

In the wake of a controversial deal that allowed the implementation of Islamic law in Pakistan’s Swat region and the establishment of what appeared to be a de facto Taliban state, Islamabad has responded with force after the Swat-based militants appeared determined to spread their presence beyond the Swat valley. The result has been some of the most serious fighting yet seen in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The government offensive has come, in part, in response to international demands for Pakistan to contain the spread of an arc of political instability through Central Asia.
On February 16, 2009, the government of the NWFP and the proscribed Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) signed a peace agreement to enforce Shari’a Nizam-e-Adl (Islamic System of Justice) in the Malakand Division and the Kohistan district of Hazara Division (Dawn [Karachi], February 17). The deal raised eyebrows within a large segment of Pakistani society and the international community, who believed that the agreement signified the defeat of the Pakistani State and a victory for the Taliban, who are dictating to the former at gun point. While the NWFP government continues to defend the peace deal, it has grave strategic and security implications that will not only imperil the domestic security of Pakistan, but also jeopardize the security of northern Afghanistan, Central Asia and China.
Strategic Importance of Malakand Division
Malakand Division comprises one third of the NWFP, and forms the northern part of Pakistan. It is spread over an area of nearly 30,000 sq. km and has a population of 5.52 million. The Division consists of seven districts – Malakand, Buner, Swat, Shangla, Upper Dir, Lower Dir and Chitral. It borders Afghanistan’s Badakshan and Nuristan Provinces in the north and northwest. In the southwest, Malakand Division shares a border with the Bajaur and Mohmand Agencies of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In the east, Malakand Division shares a border in its Chitral and Swat districts with the strategically important Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA) of Pakistan (corresponding to Pakistani-controlled Kashmir), which in turn is contiguous with China’s Uyghur-inhabited Xinjiang Province in the north. In the south, Malakand shares a border with densely-inhabited Charsadda-Peshawar, Mardan and Swabi districts of the NWFP. A cursory look at the conflict-ridden Swat district reveals that it forms the core of the Malakand Division, and shares borders with all the other districts of the Division. With the exception of Chitral, which is inhabited by the Indo-Iranian Dardic language-speaking Khowar and Kalash tribes, the Malakand Division is inhabited largely by Pashtun tribes, mainly the Yousafzai. [1]
Security Ramifications of the Talibanization of Malakand
After the February 2009 peace agreement, the TTP-Swat started to expand to the adjoining districts of Buner, Shangla, and Lower and Upper Dir under the pretext of enforcing Nizam-e-Adl. The TTP-Swat’s earlier efforts in 2007 and 2008 to penetrate the adjoining districts were effectively foiled by the joint efforts of the government and the local people.
The Swat Taliban initiated a drive to recruit locals in Swat, Buner and Shangla in an attempt to create self-sustaining local Taliban structures in these districts (Daily Times [Lahore], April 14; The News, April 16).  The TNSM, which seem to be acting as a political wing of the TTP-Swat, even attempted to enter Chitral to promote its agenda of Talibanization under the garb of Nizam-e-Adl in April. However, a local peace committee of Chitral requested TNSM leader Sufi Muhammad to postpone his visit, saying it could “create law and order problems in the area” (The News, April 17).
The expansion of the Taliban in Malakand Division is a source of grave concern. There are visible concerns within the Pakistani establishment and society that the Taliban have reached within 100 miles of the capital, Islamabad, and may seek to capture it (The News, April 20). Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) expressed his concerns in parliament on April 22, 2009, when he said, “If the Taliban continue to move at this pace, they will soon be knocking at the doors of Islamabad” (The News, April 23). More threatening is the presence of a significant number of non-local and foreign militants in Swat that pose a serious threat to northern Afghanistan, Central Asia and China’s Xinjiang Province. [2]
The non-local militants within the Swat Taliban include the Waziristani Taliban. Similarly, Central Asian militants belonging to Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) form the bulk of foreign militants within the TTP-Swat (Daily Times, November 7).  The IMU, while maintaining a working relationship with al-Qaeda, does not subscribe to the latter’s ideology of global jihad, preferring to wage a local struggle in Central Asia to overthrow the ex-communist regimes in these countries. [3] These Central Asian militants maintain strong bonds with elements of the TTP but are opposed by others, most notably the faction led by Ahmed Nazir, the Amir of the South Waziristan Taliban (Asian News International, August 16, 2008). According to Pakistani security officials, “a large number of [Baitullah] Mahsud’s men from Waziristan… have joined the militant forces in Swat and some 6,000 to 8,000 highly trained and well-armed militants are engaged in fighting the government forces” (Newsline [Karachi], February 2009).  In the recent takeover of Buner by the Taliban, locals reported the presence of “Afghan Tajiks” within the ranks of the Pakistani Taliban. These militants could not speak Pashtu and used interpreters to communicate with locals while forcibly taking over their properties (The News, April 22).
Given the unique geostrategic significance of Malakand Division, if the Taliban and the foreign militants are able to strengthen themselves in the region, it could negatively affect the neighboring countries. Dir and Chitral districts border Afghanistan’s comparatively stable non-Pashtun provinces in the north and the militants may try to destabilize them in the long term. The Taliban could attack the supply routes which the United States and NATO have recently negotiated with the Central Asian countries to ship supplies through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to their troops  stationed in Afghanistan (Geo TV, April 21; see also Eurasia Daily Monitor, April 7).
Chitral district also borders the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan, which is a 15-km wide stretch of land separating Pakistan from the Central Asian States. If Taliban rule is established in the Malakand area, the Central Asian militants might contemplate using Swat and Chitral as a springboard to conduct cross-border attacks in the Central Asian States. Until 2007, these Central Asian and Uyghur militants were based in Waziristan region and it was very difficult for them to conduct operations in Central Asia from there due to the distance factor. However, the strengthening of the Taliban in Swat district means that they have been able to establish a Taliban base almost 390 km north of Waziristan near the Wakhan corridor.
Swat and Chitral also border the strategically important Northern Areas of Pakistan, which share a border with the Xinjiang Province of China. This could provide a land passage to Uyghur separatist militants belonging to ETM, though the group has been largely inactive since the death of its leader, Hassan Mahsum, at the hands of Pakistani troops in 2003. The ETIM militants are presently allied with the Uzbek militants of the IMU and its splinter group, the IJU, for strategic and religious reasons. This means that strengthening of Taliban and foreign militants in Malakand Division could enable ETIM to conduct cross-border terrorist activities in the Xinjiang Province of China with more ease.
The Taliban are also attempting to establish a presence in the Kohistan and Battagram districts of Hazara Division and the Kala Dakha area of Mansehra Division, which hold immense geostrategic significance since the strategic Karakoram Highway (KKH) that connects Pakistan with China passes through these areas (Dawn, April 29). If the Taliban are able to consolidate themselves in the above mentioned areas they would be in a position to block the KKH, or create security problems that could sever the only land-link between Pakistan and China. The KKH was blocked several times by the TNSM in the 1990s to force their demand for Shari’a in Malakand.
Similarly, after establishing a permanent presence in Chitral, the Taliban could block the Lwari Pass that connects Chitral with the rest of the country. One cannot rule out the potential for the Taliban to employ the same strategy in blocking the strategic Kotal Pass in Darra Adamkhel that connects the northern districts of the NWFP with its southern districts.
Similarly, al-Qaeda’s retreat into the Safi tribe’s area of Mohmand Agency after being uprooted from the Bajaur Agency during military operations (August 2008-February 2009) is an important factor that cannot be ignored. Al-Qaeda may exploit the Talibanization of Malakand Division. FANA and Chitral have a sizeable Shi’a population, and al-Qaeda may try to provoke a Sunni-Shi’a sectarian conflict similar to the patterns of conflict witnessed in Iraq and Pakistan. This could enable al-Qaeda to flourish in the conflict-ridden areas and gather support from the Sunni extremists in the region. It might become very difficult for the Pakistani government to deploy its troops throughout the length and breadth of this 2400 km mountainous border region in order to fight militants and their terrorist infrastructure in the region. Already, Muslim Khan, spokesman of TTP-Swat, has expressed his willingness to host Osama bin Laden in Malakand (The News, April 22).
Previous peace agreements with Taliban militants in North and South Waziristan from 2004-2006 have tended to strengthen the Taliban militants, who established quasi-parallel governments in the region. Similarly, the February 2009 government-TNSM peace agreement serves to bolster and further embolden the Swat Taliban. Since the TTP-Swat is not part of the agreement it does not feel itself bound by the terms of the agreement and has hence indulged in violations of the peace agreement since its implementation (Daily Times, April 15). TTP-Swat stated many times that its jihad in Afghanistan would continue against US and ISAF-NATO forces (The News, February 22).
At present, the Taliban phenomenon in Pakistan is confined to the western border with Afghanistan. Taliban activity in the Pak-Afghan border region has worsened Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan, the United States and ISAF-NATO forces. However, the forward movement of the Taliban towards the north of the country may complicate Pakistan’s relations with China, Central Asia and Russia. It would push the South and Central Asia into a cauldron of violence that could jeopardize the stability of the entire region.

1. Syed Adnan Ali Shah Bukhari, “Swat: A Dangerous Flashpoint in the Making,” Pakistan Security Research Unit (PSRU)-University of Bradford, UK, Brief No. 25, December 6, 2007,
2. “Foreign Militants Also Fighting in Swat,” DG Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), February 5, 2009
3. B. Raman, “Threat to Beijing Olympics from Uyghurs,” March 10, 2008,