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Home > General > It is the Swatis today, tomorrow it could be your turn

It is the Swatis today, tomorrow it could be your turn

by Basim Usmani, 4 February 2009

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The Guardian

Swat’s descent into chaos

Taliban militants have taken the Swat valley in Pakistan – why is the country turning a blind eye?

Swat, once a resort for Pakistanis on holiday, has fallen to the Taliban. The battle for Swat began in 2007, while the country was distracted by ongoing operations in the tribally administered northern areas and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Now, President Zardari’s preoccupation with the Mumbai attacks has given the militants in Swat, Tehreek-e-Taliban, a chance to rap up their bombing campaign of girls’ schools.

The Tehreek has blow up 170 girls’ schools in Swat to date. Oblivious to Swat’s descent into chaos, the government has been busy cracking down on Jamat-ud-Dawa, the humanitarian organisation that operates allegedly with militia in Kashmir, in a series of enthusiastic measures to abate Indian pressure post-Mumbai.

A week ago, the government took control of Jamat-ud-Dawa’s public schools in their headquarters in Muridke, a small pit-stop city economically dependent on neighboring Lahore, the capital of Punjab. The Dawa’s influence is striking: truckers coming through on the "Grand Truck Road" found no cigarettes or chewing tobacco, which have been banned from sale in accordance with the organisation’s edicts.

Despite Jamat-ud-Dawa’s standing, the protest that accompanied the government’s takeover only consisted of peaceful faculty staff and students. There were no death threats issued to prominent politicians in Punjab and administrators of the Dawa’s school system and adjacent hospital expressed hope that the change of heads would lead to more financial support from the government.

Interestingly, this is after the government handed over all girls’ schools in the Swat valley to the Taliban, after being complicit to the militant’s 15 January ban on female education. Currently, the "third phase" of military operations in Swat is taking place and live coverage of the military battling the Tehreek-e-Taliban is hopefully going to highlight the urgency of the situation. The military got wise to the media attention and the chiefs of the army, navy and air force held a meeting bright and early on Sunday morning where they praised their "operational readiness".

Sadly, this readiness was nowhere to be found a week ago when the body of Pir Samiullah, a famous Swati and government loyalist who was purportedly encouraged by the military to organise a lashkar (independent army), was killed by the Taliban. After discovering the grave where Samiullah’s family secretly buried him, the Taliban exhumed his body and hung it from a major crossing in the area. Before that, the vice-president of the Awami National Party (the party with a majority in the North West Frontier Province, where Swat is located) was kidnapped and killed. Maulana Fazlullah, an influential Taliban spokesman, issued death threats over his pirate radio station that broadcasts throughout the valley, naming 40 politicians, who have mostly fled the valley.

Fazlullah warned of an army of suicide bombers to attack the Pakistani state if military operations continue, something that could find Zardari back-pedalling to the government’s position last May, when Asif handed over the valley to the Taliban to enforce their version of sharia law in return for a ceasefire. The Taliban then got organised, set up parallel courts and a brutal police force that has turned Swat into Kabul circa 2001. The spokesman for the military Major General Athar Abbas still blames the Taliban for flubbing up the May ceasefire. Those pesky Talibans, they always surprise you!

This inability to promptly drive the radicals out of Swat is reminiscent of Musharraf’s sluggish six-day siege of the Red Mosque. The militants began like those in Swat, with warnings against "un-Islamic" activities such as vending DVDs or being dressed inappropriately. In Islamabad’s case, the veiled and stick-wielding Jamia Hafza threatened transgressors with violence. Then they occupied a library, issuing edicts and promising suicide bombing. The government then waited for the group, which included many misguided teenage religious students, to set up a fortress in Lal Masjid, which had been stockpiled with weapons since the 80s by its imam, Maulana Abdul Aziz. When the siege was one day in, the country went into mourning. Musharraf’s drawn out Operation Silence gave the media ample time to project the human interest angle of a mosque filled with misguided religious students under fire. If the Swat operation continues to be as fumbling, with the 12,000 troops deployed there continuing to accrue their civilian death count in search of 3,000 fanatics, the Zardari government will be disgraced as Musharraf was. And a war of sentiments is what the fanatics are waging.

The public has not protested Swat yet. The only people who have protested are residents of Swat when children there were killed in crossfire and police opened fire on them. In place of the Taliban in Swat, people in every district of Lahore have protested the Israeli assault on Gaza. Shortly after Gaza was struck, the sectarian Imamia Students Organisation held a 3,000-strong protest down Mall Road, with posters of Hezbollah and Nasrullah on proud display. Some time last week, heavily made-up and westernised college students became a common sight at pro-Palestinian demonstrations, which were taking place multiple times a day. It seems popular to pick up Palestine the way Darfour became the issue of choice for university students three years ago.

After the government took control of Jamat-ud-Dawa’s school system in Muridke, the charity office they ran in Lahore was replaced. The new name for what was the Dawa office is Tehreek-e-Tahafouz-e-Qibla-Awal, and instead of collecting donations for Pakistani mujahideen they are asking for money for Gaza. Ostensibly, the office is run by the same people. Somehow Gaza remains a more passionate issue than Swat, which has yet to see any aid offered to its residents. Why are Pakistanis turning a blind eye? Is it because those who are killing Muslims in Swat claim to be Muslims themselves? Or is it because Lahoris are scared to speak up because they’re scared of being blown up?

If it’s the fear of being blown up that decides what Pakistanis do, then they can expect to do a lot less in the future. Bombs recently blew up outside al-Falah cinema, where Punjabi stage shows are held on Lahore’s Mall Road. Before that, the World Performing Arts Festival, three juice stalls and the only Punjabi-language radio station were hit by bombs. And don’t think Lahore, or any city in Pakistan, can’t be host to a Lal Masjid-esque debacle. In October, CD and DVD vendors in the main electronics market on Hall Road already enforced a ban on the sale of "inappropriate CDs" in accordance with an edict sent from local Islamists.

Lahore isn’t any less likely a target for the Taliban than Swat is. Maulana Fazlullah has already promised a new army of suicide bombers – words it looks like he will make good on. Lahoris need to speak out on behalf of Swatis living under the Taliban because they may need someone to speak out for themselves soon.