Elders in the crosshairs of Swat’s Taliban

The shooting of Malala Yousafzai follows a bloody campaign waged against tribal leaders who also oppose the Taliban.

A policeman stands guard at Malala Yousafzai's home, just 500m from where she was shot [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]
A policeman stands guard at Malala Yousafzai's home, just 500m from where she was shot [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

Mingora, Pakistan – The attack on Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old student and activist shot by Taliban gunmen in this town in Pakistan’s Swat Valley last week, is part of a systematic and prolonged campaign of targeted attacks undertaken by fighters from the extremist group, residents and tribal elders have told Al Jazeera.

Residents of the valley in Pakistan’s northwest, which was ruled by the Taliban from 2008 until it was driven out by a military operation in 2010, say that while peace has returned for the most part, the Taliban continues to strike with impunity at well-respected tribal elders and other prominent people who stood against them during their reign in Swat.

Locals say the Swat chapter of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, led by Maulana Fazlullah, has found sanctuary in adjoining Dir district, and allege that they also operate bases in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, which borders Dir.

Zahid Khan, the head of the Swat Qaumi Jirga [council] and an outspoken opponent of the Taliban, was one of the latest victims of the campaign. Khan was shot in the head on August 4 while returning from evening prayers.

“Since [I called for action against the Taliban at a tribal meeting in 2008], I have been facing threats from the Taliban,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that the attack in August was the third one on his person.

“If [those who attacked me] were captured when the attack occurred two months ago … then the Malala attack would never have happened. This is the failure of the intelligence and security agencies – that it has been two months and they still have not found my attackers.”

Khan said that, while the Taliban have largely been driven out of the valley, and they have lost popular support, the military and police are still not able to clamp down on targeted attacks such as the one against him.

“Today, the issue is of security writ and intelligence failures. If our intelligence agencies were working properly and keeping an eye on those coming and going from Swat, then [this would not have happened].”

It is a view echoed by Muhammed Sher Khan, a tribal elder from the Peochar area of the valley, where the Taliban operated numerous training camps during their campaign against the state.

Tribal elder Sher Afzal Khan says all of his family’s
homes were burned to the ground
[Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

“There are attacks like this after every two or three months,” he said. “And this situation has been continuing ever since the Taliban were driven out and switched to a guerilla war against the state.”

“For regular people, things have always been somewhat more peaceful. But for those prominent people who are standing against the Taliban […] it has become quite violent. There is no peace for them.”

Sher Khan speaks from experience. In an attack against him in 2007, he was badly wounded in the abdomen, and lost a finger on his left hand. His family has been repeatedly targeted since, with two brothers killed in separate attacks, including a siege in 2008 by “hundreds of Taliban gunmen” on their family home in Peochar.

“The women loaded the magazines, and the men fired on the attackers. […] They kept fighting until the ammunition ran out,” he said.

Sher Khan’s homes were set on fire, and his agricultural lands levelled by the Taliban, which locals say had gained support among villagers after the armed group said they would target wealthy landowners and redistribute their assets more equitably.

Elected officials targeted

The campaign by the Taliban has also targeted elected officials in recent years.

Muzaffar Ali Khan, the president of the local branch of the Awami National Party (ANP), which controls the provincial government, was attacked and killed in a grenade attack on his home in May 2011, well after the military said the Taliban had been cleared from the valley. Khan’s death was the latest in a long campaign against his family, which hails from the Shakar Dari area of the valley. In all, the family has lost four scions, all prominent political leaders in the area who stood up against the Taliban, said Malik Nadeem Aftab Khan, Muzaffar’s grandson.

Al Jazeera spoke to Nadeem in the foyer of the family home in Shakar Dari – still under construction after it was razed to the ground by militants several years ago. The family only returned to the valley in 2009, after being forced to flee when the military first launched its operations in 2008.

“You have seen how peaceful Swat is, with this attack on Malala Yousafzai […] This attack is evidence that the threat is still very much there. It has always been about targeted killings in Swat,” he said.

Jamal Nasir, the former mayor of the district, was the first politician targeted by the Taliban in the valley.

“They targeted me because I was an elected man,” he told Al Jazeera. “I won votes from all over Swat and they wanted to end the government writ first in Swat. I was the first politician they targeted, because I was a representative of the government.

“After me, they targeted many other innocent people, who were notables or who spoke out against the Taliban.” He spoke to Al Jazeera from his uncle’s home in the Shangwatai area, his home having first been destroyed by the Taliban and then taken over by the army.

“They took our lands and our orchards. Then they sold the plants for firewood. They destroyed our agricultural lands, they had ruined them.”

Sher Afzal Khan, a former captain in the Pakistan Army and later a sub-district mayor who was personally involved in negotiations with the local Taliban branch, told Al Jazeera a similar tale regarding his family’s people and lands in the Bandai area of the valley.

“They even killed our dogs,” he said, speaking from within the remains of his family home.

Security dilemma

Today, Nasir says, the army has secured most of the valley, so that large-scale attacks are unlikely, “but targeted attacks can happen very easily”.

The question of how true security can be established, then, remains open. While tribal elders agree that there is a need for the army to maintain peace and security, they also do not wish to see the force’s current deployment of an entire division remain indefinitely.

Nasir believes that the answer lies in establishing a group of tribal militia, or lashkar, who would fight to protect their lands in conjunction with the army and police.

Zahid Khan, the leader of a major peace council,
was attacked by Taliban gunmen in August
[Minhajuddin/Al Jazeera]

But it is an approach that Zahid Khan, the leader of the peace jirga, and others, disagree with.

“There is no need for a lashkar. Our jirga is against lashkars. We do not accept lashkars. Because, going forward, even if there is no Taliban, we are a tribal society. And if a lashkar acts against someone from a tribe or family, then won’t that person’s family take revenge? So even after the Taliban are gone and the operation is over, these enmities will remain.”

Khan is also vehemently against the army’s current extensive deployment.

“The military has a role to play, and they should be here, but not in a central governing role,” he said. “They should turn over security and civil governance issues to our civilian administration. If the police do not take over in the presence of the army, then when the army leaves – and it must leave one day, because its work is not operations, but protecting our borders – how can there be peace?”

Without a police force capable of taking over security responsibilities, however, any army withdrawal under current circumstances would leave room for a Taliban resurgence, elders say.

“In Peochar, we have people who were Taliban fighters in the past, and are supporters now. […] Some of them did it out of compulsion, but many did it willfully as well, to fight for a new system of governance,” tribal elder Sher Khan said. He explained how, when the Taliban operated training camps in his area, the majority of people there vowed to join them as suicide bombers.

“They are still there today. But no-one speaks openly about it at the moment,” he added, saying that, if adequate security arrangements were not in place, it was these people who would aid the Taliban in attempting to re-take the valley.

It is an eventuality that, many agree, the people of Swat would fight tooth and nail to avoid.

“You will not find anyone who is willing to give Taliban shelter or space to operate,” said Zahid Khan. “Because after the things that they have seen, and after their children and women had to flee here on foot and go through such challenges, I don’t think that Swat’s people will ever let anything like that happen again.”

As long as the lack of clarity remains regarding a long-term security solution for the valley, alongside support for Fazlullah’s Taliban in rural areas, the shadow of that fight will continue to hang over the Swat Valley.

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim


Source: Al Jazeera

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