The South Asia Channel

Evicting the Taliban from Swat

This is part 3 of a series contributed by WORDE researchers as they traveled to the two main theatres of Pakistan’s war against the Taliban – Swat and the tribal belt – to explore how civil society is countering extremism at the grassroots level. In Charbagh, a quiet town in Pakistan’s fabled Swat Valley, storefronts ...


This is part 3 of a series contributed by WORDE researchers as they traveled to the two main theatres of Pakistan’s war against the Taliban – Swat and the tribal belt – to explore how civil society is countering extremism at the grassroots level.

In Charbagh, a quiet town in Pakistan’s fabled Swat Valley, storefronts perforated by bullet holes are a haunting reminder of how the Taliban insurgency brought militants dangerously close to Islamabad in 2009. Once romanticized as the Switzerland of South Asia, Swat is now heavily guarded by military check posts.

We attended a jirga, or assembly, in the town of Bahrain in Swat to understand how the Taliban came to power and how the locals challenged their reign of terror. According to village elders, the real problem began about twenty years ago, when Sufi Muhammad, the "godfather" of the Swat Taliban, established the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM – The Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws). In 2002 he was arrested for leading 10,000 volunteers from Swat and surrounding districts to fight against coalition forces in Afghanistan, and his organization was officially banned. He was released in 2008, by which time his son-in law Maulana Fazlullah had taken up his cause.

Fazlullah, better known as Mawlana Radio for his broadcasts, targeted the uneducated in remote villages who were unable to distinguish religious conservatism from extremism.  He presented himself as a liberator, exploiting age-old tensions between laborers, farmers, and the rich landowning class.  Many Swatis readily bought into his narrative, and were made to believe that the United States and Pakistan were orchestrating a conspiracy to destroy Islam. According to locals, women in the area donated massive amounts of gold from their dowries to support Fazlullah’s purportedly holy cause.

When the Taliban came to power in 2007 they revealed their true colors, embarking on a systematic, violent campaign to wipe out dissent. We were told the stories of countless moderate religious and political leaders who were targeted for speaking out against the Taliban. Revered Sufi leader Pir Samiullah was killed in the town of Matta along with 63 of his followers. He was hung from a tree for four days. In Kabal, Maulana Hamidullah was murdered during his evening prayers after he openly criticized the Taliban in one of his weekly sermons. Hundreds of schools were destroyed. Community leaders who refused to send their children to fight in the jihad were executed. It soon became evident that the Taliban had little to do with Islam.

To counter the Taliban’s violent tactics, community leaders chose peaceful modes of resistance. A major anti-Taliban madrasa in Swat financially supported families of scholars who had been killed, and publically honored their late loved ones as fallen heroes. In Malakand, religious scholars organized a peace jirga and issued a fatwa accusing the Taliban of treachery. In Saidu Sharif, public events were organized in mosques to raise awareness that the Taliban were operating against Islamic law. When the Taliban tried to force the elders of Bahrain to sign a declaration in support of the insurgent group, the elders turned around and challenged the Taliban to a public debate on their beliefs. According to a prominent elder, "There was no doubt we would win the debate, so with the support of the entire town behind us, the Taliban relented and let us return to our mosques in peace."

In tandem with these local efforts, the people of Swat set out to raise awareness of the crisis at a national and global level. Zubair Torwali, a social activist from Bahrain, wrote a seminal article, "From Swat with No Love," revealing the plight of Swat in Pakistan’s mainstream media for the first time. Others followed suit, and finally, images of the Taliban flogging a teenage girl sent shockwaves throughout Pakistan.

Torwali and other activists also set up Amankaar Tehrik, or "peace movement," to mobilize political institutions to counter violent extremism. Bushra Gohar, a member of the National Assembly of Pakistan from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, convened jirgas of Swati activists and public intellectuals to bring awareness of the problem to policymakers in Islamabad. Meanwhile, religious figures from the frontier region of Pakistan briefed other anti-Taliban religious leaders from across Pakistan during the Istehkam-e-Pakistan Conference in Lahore. Together they pledged their support for military operations in Swat.

As the Taliban drew closer to Islamabad in 2009, the Pakistani military also waged a campaign to win "hearts and minds" in the region. Omar Tirmizi, a young army captain who lost his leg fighting in Bajaur explained how his unit gave their rations to villagers to gain their trust. The response was positive. That summer, with enough political capital and public awareness, the military successfully waged its offensive against the Taliban.  A community activist in Swat explained, "Once the military arrived, we all hoisted white flags on top of our houses to signify our support for the state."

Today, Swat is once again considered safe, and tourists are slowly returning. According to Nasat Iqbal from the government’s Social Welfare Organization, women are playing a major role in promoting education and leading rehabilitation projects. In nearby Malakand, the Jamia Subhaniyya Rizvia is building one of the first religious and vocational schools for women in the tribal belt, with accommodations for up to 200 students. There are other signs that people are gradually rebuilding their lives. Vibrant cultural traditions, which had been prohibited by the Taliban’s puritanical decrees, are once again being celebrated. A week before we arrived in Swat, Mr. Torwali had co-sponsored the Simam Cultural Festival, attended by thousands.

Swat’s success hinged on an integrated approach, which should be replicated at the epicenter of Pakistan’s war against extremism, the tribal belt. There as in Swat, civil society actors, including religious and political leaders, elders, and educators, lead daring resistance efforts against all odds. We visited a flagship madrasa within a network of anti-Taliban educational institutions in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). In the surrounding hills, an infamous Taliban commander is waging one of the bloodiest wars in the region. A local educator explained, "When militants began threatening the schools, hundreds of our teachers publically pledged never to allow extremism to enter our campuses." His students established lashkars (militias) and even set up a radio station to challenge extremist narratives. However, given the increasing threats from militants and waning support from the government, these endeavors were ultimately short-lived.

Parallel efforts are being waged by Shi’a Muslim community leaders in FATA to reinforce mainstream Islamic principles of religious freedom and pluralism. According to Dr. Javed Hussain, a former member of Parliament from Parachinar (just across the border from Tora Bora), thousands of members of minority groups have been persecuted by the Taliban since 9-11. Just this summer, community activists from his region organized a major press conference at the National Press Club to demand greater media coverage of the targeted killings in FATA. "There was a time," a local Shi’a leader explained, "when we used to host musical evenings with our Hindu and Sikh neighbors. In the dead of winter, we even housed Christian families in our homes when they didn’t have any heating sources." Today, at great personal risk, he affords safe passage for those fleeing the region. He added, "Every morning I think of my mother and pray that she doesn’t have to witness the pain of her son passing away." Despite courageous efforts at the grass-roots level, much more is required to mobilize all of Pakistan behind a full-fledged counterinsurgency operation in the tribal areas.

Without ongoing action to counter radical ideologies and support the efforts of moderates, militants could eventually resurface under a different alias. Let’s not forget that the Swat Taliban have already done this twice in the last two decades. As we were leaving Peshawar, a prominent poster on the road read, "Allah is our God and Jihad is our way!" This is a chilling reminder that military offensives have to be followed by a sustained campaign to counter Talibanization at its roots.

Waleed Ziad and Mehreen Farooq are leading a project to analyze the role of Pakistan’s civil society in countering extremism for the Washington DC-based World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE).

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