Swat Valley, A Recent History

January 11, 2010

In April 2009, the Pakistani government launched its largest offensive yet against Islamist militants in the region known as Swat Valley.

A few hours drive north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, Swat was once Pakistan’s most appealing tourist destination. Residents lived under a mix of tribal and sharia law augmented with rudimentary military control that was first established by the British. The leading member of the valley’s most powerful family was effectively a regional tribal king that enjoyed the title of Wali. Wali rule ended at the time of Pakistani independence in 1947, when Swat acquiesced to Pakistan. However, Swat didn’t become completely integrated into Pakistan until 1969 when the last Wali officially retired his authority.

The Pakistani state was unsuccessful in filling the power vacuum created by Wali egress. Uncertainty over which laws applied to the region left Swat Valley with the designation of a Provincially Administered Tribal Area. It was unclear if provincial or federal authority had ultimate power. Radical Islamist Sufi Mohammed filled this gap when he started preaching in the valley in 1988.

A product of the anti-Soviet jihad, Sufi Mohammed believed that the Pakistani legal system should be dismantled in favor of Quranic rulings. His organization, the Tehrik e-Nifaz e-Shariat Mohammadi (TNSM) was attracting as many as 25,000 tribesmen to its rallies by 1993. By 1994, the TNSM challenged the authority of Pakistan by kidnapping almost 200 government officials including judges, army personnel, and police officers. Pakistan gave in to the TNSM without a fight. This allowed the TNSM to implement sharia law not only in Swat but throughout the Malakand Division, of which Swat is a part. This was a major concession to the Islamists.

After 9/11, Sufi Mohammed raised a force of 9,000 men to fight alongside the Taliban against the invasion of Afghanistan by American and NATO forces; many of his ill-equipped followers were captured or killed. When Sufi Mohammed returned home to Pakistan, he was arrested by a newly aggressive general Pervez Musharraf. Sufi Mohammed’s son-in-law, Mullah Maulana Fazullah, assumed leadership of the TNSM in Swat.

Fazullah used an FM radio station to broadcast his interpretation of the Qur’an. His twice-daily broadcasts praised the Taliban and criticized America. Fazullah’s mistrust in globalization led him to urge his listeners against seeking medical care, sanitation, or a secular education. Fazullah remained unchallenged until July of 2007.

General Musharraf’s July 2007 assault on the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) in Islamabad shocked Islamist militants into action and unleashed a horrendous campaign of suicide attacks all over Pakistan. One such retaliatory suicide attack in Swat Valley killed sixteen Pakistani soldiers and three civilians. This attack finally galvanized the Pakistani military into action against Fazullah. Two thousand paramilitary troops deployed to Swat. With the valley becoming an important battle ground, foreign jihadists arrived in throngs. Local civil servants fled the towns and villages while foreign actors ingratiated themselves to the TNSM. Up to this point, the Pakistani army was ineffective in fighting the militants.

Pakistan deployed an additional 20,000 troops to Swat in November of 2007. This new offensive killed hundreds of militants, captured Fazullah’s headquarters, and arrested his brother. However, Fazullah himself escaped. Ninety percent of Swat was cleared of the Islamist fighters. However, the Pakistani army failed to take advantage of its victory.

In April 2008, the Pakistani government tried to gain lasting peace in Swat by appeasing Fazullah and the remaining militants, despite the advantage the army had gained in the region. The government struck a tentative deal to release Sufi Mohammed in exchange for a TNSM declaration that killing policemen was un-Islamic. Once Sufi Mohammed had rejoined his son-in-law, Fazullah demanded amnesty for his clerics and the release of all his troops. Eventually, the Pakistani army admitted that peace talks had failed and redeployed soldiers to Swat.

The army’s second war for Swat Valley was far tougher than the first. A larger civilian death count resulted in increased militant recruitment, and the war became as much about class as it was religion. Impoverished farmers were motivated to fight by a desire to kill the Valley’s wealthy and powerful. Ultimately, the battle proved too costly and Pakistan gave in to the TNSM. Previously unheard of Taliban associated restrictions were swiftly implemented in Swat banning music, television, and women’s rights.

The wealthy and moderate among the population of Swat Valley fled the region, leaving behind the poorer and more conservative members of Swat society.

In April 2009, the Pakistani army changed its mind again and began a third campaign to free Swat Valley of militant control. This decision was based partially on issues relating to the Pakistani Taliban. A now powerful Pakistani Taliban had formed partially out of TNSM rule. Militants identifying as Pakistani Taliban spread through Swat unchallenged. The growing influence of Pakistani Taliban eventually threatened Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. This time, the Pakistani army waged a more organized operation. By June of 2009, most of Swat was once again freed from TNSM/Pakistani Taliban control.

Once again, however, Fazullah escaped capture. He is believed to have fled to Afghanistan where he may be hiding amongst Afghan Taliban fighters. Fazullah has vowed to retake control of Swat Valley.

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