( From "The News" of January 21,2009)
Amid rising TTP gains, Army adopts new strategy
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
By Amir Mir
LAHORE: As the situation in Swat continues to be a major concern, a Pakistan Army spokesman has revealed a new strategy to establish the government’s writ and to contain the rising influence of the Taliban militants in the valley — once considered a haven for tourists in the country.
An ISPR spokesman told The News the military has recently begun to implement the new strategy, which would focus more on consolidating and securing the main supply routes and urban and rural centres by putting more boots on the ground. “The Army presently has four brigades in Swat, including one from Rawalpindi overseen by a General Officer Commanding. We have recently made some adjustments and to begin with, the security forces are gearing up to secure Mingora and its outer-parameters,” he added.
According to the spokesman at the Swat Media Centre (SMC), no credible figures were available about the civilian casualties in the military operation so far. However, he said since Oct 2007, around 15,000 military and paramilitary troops had killed 784 militants in Swat, while the number of troops martyred during the same period stood at 189.“Of the security forces people killed in the operation, 80 belonged to the Army, 61 were policemen, 35 staffers of the Frontier Constabulary while the remaining seven belonged to the Frontier Corps.”
The spokesman said the militants in Swat had carried out 165 bomb attacks against the security forces since 2007, which included 17 suicide and 148 remote-controlled attacks.The spokesman added since the start of the military operation in the valley, the militants have destroyed 20 bridges, besides setting ablaze 165 girls schools, 80 video shops and 22 barber shops. He conceded up to a third of Swat’s 1.5 million people have left the area since the launch of the ‘Operation Rah-i-Haq.
Asked to comment on the media reports that the Swat valley has fallen to the fighters and the military operation has failed to produce the desired results, the ISPR spokesman said the Pakistan Army troops were fully capable of swiftly evicting and killing miscreants but they were giving peace a chance to avoid civilian casualties in the wake of requests from the provincial government as well as the local elders in touch with the rebels.
He referred to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s Jan 19, 2009 statement on the floor of the National Assembly, saying: “The use of force or military action is not the only solution to everything and we will have to adopt a political strategy to deal with the situation in Swat.”
The spokesman said the military operation in Swat was still ongoing, the troops were still deployed in the valley and only some pockets have fallen to the militants. It is, therefore, wrong to say that the militants have taken control of the Swat district”, he added.
Despite claims of the spokesman, 15 months after the launching of the military operation in the lush-green valley to dismantle the militants’ network of Maulana Fazlullah, a major part of the mountainous region seems to have fallen to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The major tourist attraction apparently lives under the Fazlullah’s brand of Shariah.Not too long ago, the idyllic valley, with its rolling hills, gushing streams and vistas, was described as Pakistan’s Switzerland.
But ever since the beginning of the military operation in 2007, the security situation has gone from bad to worse, converting this paradise on earth into a valley of death and destruction.Around 10,000 TTP militants have been pitted against 15,000 Army troops since Oct 22, 2007, when the operation was officially launched.
Leading the charge against the Pakistan Army is Maulana Fazlullah, also known as Mullah Radio for the illegal FM radio channel he operates. Through his FM broadcasts, still operational despite being banned by the NWFP government, the firebrand keeps inspiring his followers to implement Shariah, fight the Army and establish his authority in the area.
Military authorities have repeatedly alleged that Fazlullah, who has thousands of armed supporters ready to challenge the security forces on his command, has close links with the Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives. The cleric has already become a household name in Swat, as his Shaheen Commando Force is destroying and occupying government buildings, blowing up police stations, bridges, basic health units and hotels and burning girls’ schools.
Extending the sphere of their activities aimed at enforcing Shariah, Fazlullah’s acolytes have directed local prayer leaders only to focus on the attributes of Jihad in their Friday sermons. They have also banned female education in Swat, besides asking parents of grown-up girls to marry them to militants. He had issued an edict in Dec 2008 to close hundreds of schools by Jan 15.
While following in the footsteps of the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the militants led by Fazlullah were also pursuing an agenda of rigid religious beliefs, based on a violent Jihadi doctrine. Barbers in Swat and adjoining districts have been ordered not to shave beards and shops selling CDs and music cassettes asked to close down. In some places, just a handful of militants control a village since they rule by fear — beheading government sympathisers, blowing up bridges and asking women to wear all-encompassing burqas.
Similarly, the Army is manning several police stations in Swat because the police force there had been decimated by desertions and killings. The gravity of the law and order situation can be gauged from the fact that one of the busiest squares in Mingora has been renamed by the shopkeepers as ‘Khooni Chowk’ because every morning, as they come to shops, they would find four or five dead bodies hung over the poles or trees.
Hundreds of Army jawans as well as civilians have been killed in the ongoing military operation, as a result of suicide attacks and roadside bombings. Under these circumstances, the state writ has shrunk from Swat’s 5,337 square kilometres to the limits of its regional Mingora headquarters, which is a city of just 36 square kilometres.
Some recent media reports say nearly 800 policemen, half of the total sanctioned strength of police in Swat, have either deserted or proceeded on long leave on one pretext or the other. Therefore, the private army raised by Fazlullah literally rules the roost in most parts of the valley, which is witnessing a dominance of the Wahabi doctrine as most of his supporters belong to the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi.
The Wahabi followers of Fazlullah are making a state within a state in Swat, having already established their own administration on the pattern of the Saudi monarchs, besides creating a private army, equipped with the latest weapons and controlled by the militant leader’s trusted and loyal commanders. Besides establishing a parallel judicial system across the valley dealing with the cases of different nature, Fazlullah has also established a Baitul Maal, for which his commanders collect Ushr.
Contributing further to the already grim situation is the growing negative public perception about the military operation, which they believe has killed more civilians than militants. While no credible data is available about the civilian casualties in the military operation, the Police Data Centre in Swat estimates the figure ran into hundreds.
The rise of Maulana Fazlullah, the man ruling Swat, has been like a roller-coaster ride. Fazlullah, a resident of the Imam Dheri area, was born to Biladar Khan, a Pakhtun of Babakarkhel clan of the Yousufzai tribe of the district. Biladar Khan was highly inspired by the TNSM and thus became one of the right-hand men of Maulana Sufi Mohammad.
Finding himself even more devoted to the enforcement of Shariah, the motto of the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM), he sent his son, the then Fazal Hayat, now Fazlullah, to his Madrassa at Qambar in Dir district. This long and equally close association between Sufi and Fazal eventually turned into matrimonial relationship when the young son of Biladar became the son-in-law of the TNSM chief.
After Sufi Mohammad (who had actually formed the TNSM in 1992 after leaving the Jamaat-e-Islami) was awarded life imprisonment in 2002 by an anti-terrorism court on charges of inciting youngsters to illegally cross the Pak-Afghan border to wage a Jihad against the US-led Allied Forces in Afghanistan, Fazlullah made his native village Imam Dheri as TNSM headquarter and got it shifted from Qambar in Dir.
Generally referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, primarily to distinguish itself from the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar, the TNSM (Movement for Enforcement of Islamic Laws) is a militant Wahabi organisation which has fast emerged in the Malakand division and in the Bajaur Agency as a private army to reckon with.
As far as the TNSM organisational structure is concerned, Fazlullah is assisted by two Shuras, or councils. One is the Ulema Shura with several Swati clerics who advise him on religious policies of the group. Another Shura, which is also called the executive body, is the highest policy-making organ of the TNSM, which has a large number of ex-servicemen, including retired commissioned officers, as its members.
Always wearing black turbans, the followers of Fazlullah are also called Black Turbans. He has never had his photograph taken, believing Islam forbids taking pictures of human beings lest it becomes the first step to idol worship.
The essence of his agenda is in the motto: “Shariah ya Shahadat (Islamic laws or martyrdom)”.During the July 2007 Lal Masjid operation against the fanatic Ghazi brothers, Fazlullah came into action against the government forces to avenge the military action. A large number of people armed with rifles, Kalashnikovs and small arms started gathering at his Madrassa as he announced it was time to go to war. His announcement that thousands of militants were ready to avenge the attack was followed by a series of suicide assaults on the security forces.
As many students belonging to the Red Mosque-linked seminaries were from this area, the Army action generated a wave of sympathy for Fazlullah’s cause. Most of the anti-government rallies and demonstrations against the Lal Masjid operation were held in this region.Soon after the Lal Masjid operation, Fazlullah decided to join hands with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, led by Commander Baitullah Mehsud, in a bid to provide an umbrella to all insurgent movements operating in several tribal agencies and settled areas of the NWFP.
Since then, Fazlullah and his followers are toeing Baitullah’s line, whether they are issuing a decree, signing a peace deal with the government or scrapping the same. Therefore, it appears by all accounts that the Fazlullah-led militants are working in the same mould as the fire-spewing clerics of Lal Masjid did: to make Swat hostage to its rigid vision of militant Islam. And remember, the valley is hardly 160 kilometres from Islamabad.