The Talibanization of paradise in Pakistan

The once lyrical Swat Valley 'has been turned into hell.'

pakistan funeral 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
pakistan funeral 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
MINGORA, Pakistan - Until recently, the Swat Valley was peaceful and beautiful, a land of roses, gushing rivers and Buddhist stupas, an idyllic spot for glorious Pashtun traditions of love, peace and hospitality. Once a paradise on earth - all that is now lost. "There was a time when women and girls from the valley traveled from Mingora town all the way by foot over the high and legendary Mountains of Elum to the mausoleum of the famous saint Pir Baba in downtown Buner, there to offer prayers for finding a sweetheart or to sing sad songs telling of separation. We were poor but happy then. God only knows who cast an evil eye on our land and turned it into hell," said Shaukat Sharar, a local intellectual from Mingora, capital of the Swat district in northern Pakistan. TNSM-the first pro-Taliban movement The Swat Valley, which fell to pro-Taliban fighters in July, was perhaps the most beautiful valley in South Asia. The people were liberal in attitude and in their way of life. The people worked their orchards and rice fields, reaping enough corn and cash to live with honor, dignity and hope. There was Music Street, where beautiful Swati girls once danced to the tune of artistically rich Pashto music, to the delight of visitors. Even the former wali (ruler) of Swat State married a famous dancer to bless her community with respect for traditional Pashtun society. Then in 1992, Maulana Sufi Muhammad, an extremist cleric, launched the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi Movement (Movement for the Enforcement of the Islamic Legal System, or TNSM) in the Malakand region. His followers occupied government buildings and schools to pressure the government to accept their demands, blocked the main Peshawar-Mingora highway and killed a member of the provincial assembly and scores of people in adjoining districts. In 1994, then-Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto's government curbed the movement, but to appease its followers, introduced the Nizam-e-Adal Regulation (an Islamic judicial system) in Malakand. However, TNSM leaders, suspicious of the government, persisted in their struggle to introduce "a true Islamic order" to the region. On September 6, 1998, the TNSM threatened to attack American property and to abduct American citizens in Pakistan unless the United States apologized to the Muslim world for the August 1998 missile strikes on Afghanistan. "When the US attacked the Taliban government in neighboring Afghanistan in 2001 the hardline clerics in the TNSM leadership started recruiting people for jihad against the infidels [the US and its allies] on Afghan soil. Some 10,000 people with old fashioned guns in their hands were taken to the border to fight the hi-tech war planes of the United States," recalled Shah Dauran, a local resident. Qazi Ihsanullah, a TNSM spokesperson, said in Bajaur on October 27, 2001: "We will resist if the authorities try to stop us. The jihad will start here... Initially [Taliban leader] Mullah [Muhammad] Omar advised us to wait and come to Afghanistan only when necessary, but we have told them that we will stay in Afghanistan as a reserve force." Muhammad Iqbal, a 40-year old leader of the movement, said that when Maulana Sufi Muhammad gave the call, supporters collected 60 truck-loads of food and clothes and 1.7 million rupees to give to senior Taliban commanders in Qandahar, Afghanistan. But Sufi Muhammad's fighters were untrained and ignorant in the ways of modern warfare and most of them were killed or arrested by the Northern Alliance forces. With some other TNSM leaders, Maulana Sufi Muhammad was arrested by Pakistan security forces on January 15, 2002, and sent to jail. After seven years in prison he was released recently by the government and admitted to hospital in Peshawar for treatment of diabetes. President Pervez Musharraf's government has also banned the movement, which it defines as a terrorist organization. Though TNSM has been dormant for the past seven years, its leadership formed another armed movement under the leadership of Maulana Fazlullah, Maulana Sufi Muhammad's son-in-law, who is a strong opponent of Western sociopolitical ideals. From tourism to terrorism Following the arrest of his spiritual leader and father-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, 31, gave the movement new impetus in a novel and effective manner. He launched a network of illegal FM radio channels throughout the Swat Valley and began broadcasting fiery speeches denouncing education for girls, prophylactic anti-polio drops, music shops, and the pro-American policies of Musharraf. In a June 2007 interview, the firebrand cleric told me that following his advice people had burned TV sets, VCRs and computers worth a million rupees. "This was the first blow to the region's liberal values and the first step toward obscurantism," Khurhsid Khan, coordinator of a local NGO, said. The radio broadcasts gradually spread to a radius of 40 kilometers and thousands of people used to listen to it with great veneration after their night prayers. Harnessing the air waves like this brought change. Parents stopped sending their girls to school. The illiterate women of the region, who saw Maulana Fazlullah as a true leader of Islam, donated their gold jewelry to build Imam Dheri a religious seminary on the bank of the River Swat. The use of anti-polio vaccine for children was also accused of being "un-Islamic" by Maulana Fazlullah. In October 2006, Pakistan's air strike on a religious seminary in Bajaur Tribal agency, which the locals believed was carried out by US forces, killed 82 people including its administrator Maulvi Liaqat Ali. Laiqat Ali was very close to Maulana Fazlullah. After the incident, Maulana Fazlullah embarked on a campaign arousing the people to join him fight the invading US forces. "We will teach them a lesson. We will avenge them for killing our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan and Bajaur Agency," he said in one of his broadcasts straight after the incident. In July 2007, when the Pakistan government launched Operation Silence against the Hafsa Seminary in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, Maulana Fazlullah seized it as an opportunity to strengthen his support base and called on the people to take arms and fight the US and its allies. Bombs in girls' schools and shops selling CDs, and suicide attacks on police and security forces became the order of the day. Maulana Fazlullah's "Shaheen Force," commanded by Siraj-ud-Din and supported by foreign fighters, took over schools, hospitals and government offices in the upper Swat valley. The Pakistani flag was replaced by the black and white flag of the movement. The caretaker government at the time dispatched 25,000 regular army forces to confront Maulana Fazlullah fighters in Swat. Central government officials said that prior to this the ruling six-party religious alliance of North West Frontier Province had opposed military action, but was now determined to fight until the valley was cleared of militancy. Paradise lost In the clash that followed the security forces suffered massive casualties and at least 13 Pakistani security personnel were beheaded in the Matta and Charbagh areas of the district. Of the valley's 1.5 million population some 400,000 were displaced by the fighting. Tellingly, in Jehandabad, the fighters blew up a 700 year-old statue of Buddha, symbol of peace and humanity. Zahid Khan, president of the Swat Hotels Association, said that 1,200 hotels had closed down in the area with owners suffering losses of 4 billion rupees. The government claimed the area had been cleared of rebels and the FM radio station of Maulana Fazlullah shut down. But, after a few days' break, Maulana Fazlullah was back to broadcasting, and threatened security forces with dire consequences for killing his men and occupying the seminary he had built at a cost of 8m. rupees. "They say we are hiding. That is wrong. We are not hiding; this is just a war strategy. We will teach them a lesson as our brothers did to the forces of the USSR in Afghanistan," he announced in his new radio broadcasts. The past five months of fighting between Pakistani security forces and the extremists have rendered the whole area a virtual hell, where fear prevails and the locals have serious reservations about the military action. They say the government has proved itself unable to nip the evil in the bud. "First they allowed Maulana Fazlullah to recruit and train people. He was a minor leader then, but the government allowed him to become a monster. Now they are not able to rein in him," said Sher Ali, a college professor in Mingora. Zia-ud-Din, secretary of the Swat Private Schools Association, said thousands of students were not attending class due to the school closures. "They are frightened, lost and utterly confused. Many of the children are suffering from psychological trauma," he reported. Local people want to see something positive come out of the military operation, which has led to the deaths of many civilians and destroyed the local infrastructure. However, realities on the ground indicate that this lyrical valley, home to the Gandahara civilization, is lost forever. The current wave of violence in other parts of the country is darkening the gloom still further. Is the US planning to attack Pakistan? The spread of terrorism by pro-Taliban fighters from Waziristan to the Swat Valley has prompted the US to attack al-Qaida targets in Pakistan. In 2007, Frances Townsend, homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush, told CNN that if the United States had "actionable targets, anywhere in the world," including in Pakistan, "we would pursue those targets." "There are no options that are off the table," she said. Responding to US officials' concerns about Pakistan nuclear installations and the spread of militancy, Musharraf warned in an interview that any unilateral attacks by the US against al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in his country's tribal areas would be treated as an invasion. Political analysts say that US attacks on al-Qaida targets in Pakistan would exacerbate the already volatile situation in the region and would send current opponents of militancy into al-Qaida's arms. The religious political party alliance, Mutahida Majlas-e-Amal, won a landslide victory in the last elections by exploiting anti-American sentiments in Balochistan and North West Frontier Province. "Any such act would further inflame the situation. It would destabilize the whole region. Peace efforts in Afghanistan would be derailed if the US attacks Pakistan," said Khadim Hussain Amir, a political analyst and professor at Bahria University in Islamabad. Khadim Hussain added that the US has economic and strategic interests in the region and that the Pakistan military wished to protect these interests. "President Bush says that al-Qaida's war is against American freedom and democracy while al-Qaida and Taliban say that the US war on terrorism is actually a war against Islam. On the other hand, nationalist forces think the aim of the current war is the genocide of the Pashtun [ethnic Afghan] people. These are the ideological foundations of the present crisis. In my view this war is against the people and their resources just to promote capitalist interests. Militancy and militarism both end in the large scale sufferings of the already marginalized people," said Khadim. In Khadim's opinion, political parties, especially secular and progressive ones, can and must play a role to advance the peoples' agenda by creating the space for negotiation and dialogue among all stake holders - including the US.