The Situation in Swat: An Interview With Shahid R. Siddiqi By Jeremy R. Hammond

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By Jeremy R. Hammond
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
Foreign Policy Journal
July 9, 2009

Shahid R. Siddiqi began his career in the Pakistan Air Force, and later joined the private sector where he was until recently in a senior management position. At the same time, he worked as a broadcaster with Radio Pakistan and was the Islamabad bureau chief of the English weekly magazine, “Pakistan & Gulf Economist“. In the U.S. in 1994, he co-founded the Asian American Republican Club in Maryland to encourage the participation of Asian Americans in the mainstream political process. He now writes columns, with articles appearing in the Pakistan daily Dawn and The Nation, among others. He is a contributing writer for Foreign Policy Journal.

In an interview with Foreign Policy Journal, Mr. Siddiqi explains Pakistan’s ongoing military offensive against militant groups in the Swat district and the context in which the government made the decision to launch it. He explains why the Pakistan Taliban had support in the Swat Valley, how a peace deal between the militants and the government came about, and why it collapsed.

The Western media reported at the time that the peace deal between the Pakistani government and militants linked to the Pakistan Taliban would allow Shariah, or Islamic Law, to be implemented in the Swat district. But in an interview President Asif Ali Zardari suggested that this wasn’t really an accurate characterization of the deal. What exactly was the truce agreement between the government and the militants?

The issue of the so-called Shariah law, which in fact was Nizam-e-Adal (meaning “The System of Justice’), was quiet simple but somehow got distorted due to involvement of the group of religious militants that espoused it, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, or “Pakistan Taliban”), who had now expanded their terrorist activities into the settled area of Swat moving in from the adjoining Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where they were operating under Baitullah Mehsud.

Until about a decade back this area was under a similar law until the government of Pakistan decided to change this situation and extend into it the same law that covered the rest of the country. The old law made life easy and simple for the local folks who understood it, and it enabled them to get quick justice at their doorstep. They were unhappy with the change because now the courts were distantly located, corrupt, and utterly inefficient. Clearly, the militants had the support of the local population in this demand.

After the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) government failed to dislodge these militants from Swat by force, even after intense battles in which the paramilitary and military forces took a large number of casualties, it decided to resolve the issue of insurgency through negotiations and by reaching a settlement with the militants and other local groups who supported the militants. It agreed, among other things, to the demand of restoring Nizam-e-Adal.

The deal between the militants and the government was not so much about Shariah as it was about enforcement of Nizam-e-Adal, and it culminated in the promulgation of Nizam-e-Adal Regulation 2009 by the NWFP government. It provided for the appointment of seven kinds of judges in the Malakand Division. Five judges related to district administration. The titles of the judges were changed from English to Urdu — for example, District Session Judge was called Zila Kazi, Additional District Judge was Khas Kazi, etc. Interestingly, five of these judges were already functioning at the district level in Malakand since 1999 when the IJI (a Rightist Islamist party) government had promulgated a similar law.

The Nizam-e-Adal Regulation 2009 sought the appointment of two kinds of additional courts of the rank of high court and Supreme Court. The sum total of the order was that all the cases relating to Malakand would be decided in Malakand and the litigants will not have to travel to Peshawar or Islamabad. It also ensured that all laws will be in accordance with the Quran and Sunnah (life and practices of the prophet), which principle is enshrined in Pakistan’s Constitution also.

This agreement was aimed at delivery of speedy justice, even at the appellate level, and was no big deal. The agreement did not allow a fanatic interpretation of the law, which usually is perceived to be the case. Zardari, after dragging his feet for some time, signed this Regulation into law.

There were apprehensions in the minds of many who distrusted the militants and feared the worst. Hence there was an opposition to the deal, which was even termed a sell-out to the militants. Knowing the extremist ideology that the militants followed, the people feared fanaticism would prevail and would lead to setting up a state within state. Hence Zardari’s remarks.

Did the people of Swat and the people of Pakistan support the truce agreement?

Yes, the people of Swat and the country generally did, despite lack of trust about the designs of the militants. The people of Swat, tired of militant interference in their daily lives, took a sigh of relief in the hope that with the agreement signed, normalcy would return.

In hindsight, the agreement with the militants was doomed to failure from the beginning. Although the military found it difficult to eliminate the militants by force (its troops were reluctant to kill the militants on the grounds that they shared same ethnicity and faith with them) the approach of eliminating militancy by appeasing the militants was not correct. This is proven by the fact that during the last few years nine military operations were carried out and nine compromises were made with militants operating in FATA and Swat but none of these succeeded in bringing peace. Apparently during the early stages, the government machinery lacked the will rather than the capacity to dismantle militancy in Malakand Division. FATA was another story, where more due to its peculiar political status the government’s hand were tied.

Who are the Pakistan Taliban?

It is a group that emerged during the last four years in South Waziristan and consists of a mixed bag of people including Mehsud tribesmen, unemployed Pashtun and Punjabi youth, remnant fighters of Afghan wars, religious zealots, criminals, and rogue elements of the frontier region and Punjab and local, national, and international militant groups.

During the Musharraf regime a blind eye was turned to the activities of some of these groups in an environment laden with intelligence and counterintelligence activities in the border belt and in Afghanistan. Pakistan is now paying a heavy price for having shown leniency to some of them.

The TTP leadership has come to work for foreign masters while the rank and file is ideologically motivated and indoctrinated into practicing an extremist ideology of Takfir, the practice of declaring other Muslims in apostasy and effectively considering them excommunicated and condemned to death. Pakistan has been rocked by a wave of suicide bombings. Takfiris believe this makes them a martyr and earns them a place in heaven.

Where do these Pakistan Taliban draw their support from?

A group of local tribesmen and remnants of recent Afghan wars, including Uzbeks and Chechens, began their operations in South Waziristan initially styling itself as Taliban and claiming to be supporters of Mullah Omar’s Taliban group. But because of their terrorist activities against Pakistan, Mullah Omar dissociated his group from them, and ever since they have styled themselves as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP. They are also called Pakistani Taliban to distinguish them from Afghan Taliban.

Today they are heavily funded and supplied with high quality weaponry and equipment by certain foreign interests present or operating in Afghanistan. They use weapons that originate in India, Russia, the U.S., U.K. and Israel to name some sources. Take, for instance, the C4 explosive, sophisticated remote control devices for suicide and other missions, and the latest highly efficient communication equipment. None of them are of Pakistani origin.

Their objective is to serve the interests of those who want to see Pakistan destabilized and fractured, particularly the NWFP and Baluchistan, establish their control over areas of Pakistan, and terrorize the people in general.

How is it otherwise possible for this rag tag group to come in possession of unlimited funds, sophisticated weaponry, and information about the troop movements of the Pakistan military, when NATO forces keep such a close eye on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan? How else it is possible for them to challenge the state of Pakistan and its military that is reputed to be among the best? How else is Baitullah Mehsud always at a safe place and escapes U.S. drone attacks despite direction from the Pakistan military? And how else can he be so elusive that Pakistan’s ISI [Inter Services Intelligence] and military has not yet been able to nab him – the most wanted man today?

The TTP started off in South Waziristan but has now begun to venture out in major towns and cities of Pakistan. Swat is a case in point.

Western media report that the deal broke down because the militants tried to take over Buner in violation of the agreement. But the militants accuse the government of violating the truce agreement. What violation is the government accused of, and is there any legitimacy to this claim? Or is the Pakistan Taliban wholly responsible for causing the deal to break down?

A 14-point deal was reached between the government and the militants after the effort to dislodge them was abandoned. The main cause for abandoning the military option to flush them out was the apprehension of heavy civilian casualties in view of Swat valley being a quite a built up and populated area, which would have allowed the Taliban to melt away into the local population and fight an irregular war. So the military, ISI, and the government decided to give peace deal a chance, with assurances from some other local religious outfits that the Taliban would honor the deal.

Among other conditions, under the deal the militants were to lay arms, shun violence and allow writ of the government to prevail. In return the government promised to implement the Nizam-e-Adal through Qazi courts and some other administrative facilities for the people.

The deal broke down for several reasons. Brutal and ruthless as they were, the militants continued to terrorize people even after the agreement was signed. They refused to lay down their arms and continued their nefarious activities. They destroyed mosques that did not conform to their religious teachings, forcibly closed down barber shops, video stores, girls’ schools and forced women into shrouds (burqas), edicts similar to those imposed by the Afghan Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan. The local administration had virtually disappeared and the militants were issuing edicts of all kinds. Summary executions through slaughter, whipping of young girls, hanging of people by the trees, and killings of those cooperating with government forces were widely reported. Then they finally began to expand into Buner where a wary people organized a lashkar (people’s army) to fight their advances. This caused unrest throughout the region amid fears of clashes.

All this sent a wave of grave concern among the people elsewhere in the country. To them this appeared to be a prelude to what was expected to come to their own neighborhoods. TTP-inspired suicide attacks being almost a daily occurrence, it took a severe toll in terms of people’s lives and confidence in the state and the government. They were anxious for the situation to be brought under control at any cost and pressure on the military and the government for action began to mount.

The militants had driven away the government administration and the law enforcement agencies. To restore its writ in line with the agreement, the government wanted to restore the administration and redeploy the police force. The militants refused to let that happen. They wanted people of their choice to be posted in administrative and law enforcement positions and deploy the police as they thought fit. This was obviously not acceptable to the government.

Then the militants insisted on employing judges of their choice. This was neither provided in the agreement nor could it be allowed.

The people of Swat and Buner were begging for the government intervention to expel the militants. People of Swat even offered to migrate and vacate their homes to enable the military to single-mindedly root out the militant evil once and for all. This and the Western pressure played a role in the decision by the military to make a decisive move.

Both the military and the people were prepared for collateral damage and loss of property that is taking place. In certain areas houses had to be razed to flush the Taliban out but there has been no protest. Mass migration has taken place. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are scattered outside Swat in refugee camps in sweltering heat waiting to return and rebuild their lives without having to live under the fear of the militants. Most of them who have suffered at the hands of the militants have accepted their dislocation as a price for getting rid of militancy.

From the accounts being released, the military is taking huge losses but is succeeding in killing and driving the militants out. The operation Rah-e-Haq (the path of righteousness) in Swat is nearing completion and the military is now preparing to move into South Waziristan with the objective of eliminating the TTP network and Baitullah Mehsud.

From the incoming news it appears the U.S. is now willing to cooperate in doing this. In the past they refused to eliminate Baitullah despite authentic identification of his locations to U.S. commanders in Afghanistan several times by the ISI and to Mike Mullen during his visit to Islamabad by former President Musharraf. What does that mean? I leave it to others to judge.

Is the military action being carried out because Pakistan believes it is in its own best interests, or because of U.S. pressure to take action against militants, or both? Do the people of Pakistan as a whole support the present military action?

They do. There is no voice of dissent. Even the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says in its report on Swat situation that “military action was unavoidable”. The government, political parties, the media and the people of Pakistan are fully behind the military operations. For them elimination of Taliban is now necessary for their survival and hence a matter of faith.

Every Pakistani believes that TTP is an evil that has no place in Pakistan’s national life. It must be eliminated at all cost.

For some strange reason the U.S. administration has been very vocal recently in demanding that Taliban advance be reversed although informed Pakistanis believe that it is they who let loose the monster in the first place. One school of thought believes that by doing so they were trying to intimidate the Pakistan government and force it to share the command and control system of its nuclear assets with them, something they have wanted to have for a long time. Apparently they have now managed to lay their hands on it. I am not sure to what extent. But If Obama’s speech on the eve of Zardari’s visit to Washington is any indication, the U.S. administration is quite happy.

Jeremy R. Hammond is the editor and principle writer for Foreign Policy Journal, an online publication dedicated to providing news, critical analysis, and commentary on U.S. foreign policy, particularly with regard to the “war on terrorism” and events in the Middle East, from outside of the standard framework offered by government officials and the mainstream corporate media. He has also written for numerous other online publications. You can contact him here.

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