Peshawar: two tales of a city

July 6, 2009

Peshawar, sweltering with mercury soaring above 40 degrees centigrade, hours long power outages, and a new breed of marauding tribesmen called Taliban knocking at city’s gates seems to be submerged into a chaos, yet it is the same noisy and dusty city, it used to be throughout its history of more than 2000 years.

Roaming around when one reaches Qissa Khawni Bazaar (The story tellers’ bazaar) in the heart of the city, one could hear the Peshawarities sipping aromatic ‘Kewha’ in small china cups, and reacting anxiously to the terrorism. Qissa Khawni occupies a central place in the social and cultural life of Peshawar. In the by gone days, it used to be a camping ground for the caravans from Central Asia and Povindahs or Afghan traveling merchants, and at nights storytellers recited their stories of love and war to these travelers. However, during the metamorphosis of the city, the tradition of story telling gradually became a matter of memories only, and this historical bazaar also known as ‘Piccadilly of Central Asia’ become a bizarre mesh mash of ropes and barricades that have been put in place to guard against the unruly terrorists.

The same situation is visible in other parts of the city, where such obstacles replaced the city’s traditional demeanor of openness and hospitality. This reminds one of Ahmed Faraz couplet “Rafta rafta yehi zindan man badal jaatye han/ Ab kisi naaye shahr ki buniyad na daali jaaye,” “Gradually these (cities) turn into prisons, so no new city be laid out.”

On a walking distance from Qissa Khawni is situated Peshawar Museum, which bears testimony to the reign of Buddhism on the vast expanses of Ghandara. There are around 74 Buddha stories carved in stone are on display in Peshawar Museum, describing all happenings in his life. Emperor Kanishka, ruled the Kushan Empire from his capital Peshawar (Purushapura) in 78 AD, and Buddhism, took a new form of Mahayana Buddhism during his rule.

In 1530, the founder of Mughal Empire in India Baber passed through Peshawar and found a town by the name of Bagram, which was later renamed as Peshawar, which means “The Place at the Frontier,” by his grandson, Akbar, the Great Mughal. The Pathan conqueror of Mughal throne, Sher Shah Suri when connected Delhi and Kabul through Grand Trunk (GT) Road, Peshawar became an important trade centre. After Suri, Mughals again captured India and also Peshawar, and transformed it into the city of flowers adding many of its finest architectural monuments including Mahabat Khan Mosque and Shahi Bagh.

In 1834, the armies of Ranjit Singh captured the city; they chopped the city gardens for the firewood and General Paolo Di Avitabile, the then Italian mercenary governor of city used the mosque minarets to hang the troublemakers. He also reconstructed the city’s old wall to guard against the attacks of unyielding and ferocious tribesmen.

The British captured Peshawar in 1848, and turned it into a garrison and later also craved a new province NWFP, and Peshawar became its provincial capital. Peshawar remained an important imperial outpost during the ‘Great Game’ days against any possible Tsarist advances on India, which ironically came about 40 years after the liquidation of British Empire.

The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 exposed the city to an influx of Afghan refugees, and it became a haven of Afghan resistance groups, fighting the Russian occupation. During this era Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Jihadists and Pakistani military establishment formed close links to oust the ‘Godless Infidels’ from Afghanistan and a new chapter of city’s history opened, which introduced the city to Kalashnikovs, heroin and jihadists. The CIA financed Jihad led to departure of Soviets from Afghanistan, but the bad blood among jihadists led the country to strife, which ultimately paved the way for the emergence of Taliban. Taliban were ousted from Kabul in 2002 by the American for sheltering Osama Bin Laden, whom they considered responsible for the incidents of 9/11. The ouster of Taliban from Kabul with the active Pakistani support exposed the tribal areas of NWFP to a wave of militancy called Talibanistaion, which gradually spread across NWFP and now knocking at the city’s gates.

These tumultuous events and strifes’ over the centuries have shaped the psyche and cultural ethos of the people. According to the Karl Meyer’s The Dust of Empire, “Peshawar is the hub of a thriving black market in drugs and weapons, its slums and refugee camps the recruiting ground for jihadists who would happily kill every infidel anywhere.” In reality, one of greatest non-violent movements of history started in the Frontier in twentieth century and leader of Khudai Khidmatgar (Red Shirts) Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan raised a non-violent army of 100,000 men among the people, who love vendetta and guns more than anything else.

But the ongoing militancy and wounds it had inflicted on the psyche of city and its residents is a reminder of Urdu saintly poet Mir Dard’s couplet “Zindagi hai ya koi tufan hai/ ham tu iss jeenay kay haathon mar chalay” “Is it life or a raging storm/we have reaped nothing except death in our sojourn here”.


Pending peace

June 25, 2009

Swat cannot yet be considered a post-Taliban district.

The Pakistan Army has regained control over large swathes of territory in the Swat Valley earlier lost to the Taliban as well as recaptured the district capital Mingora with minimum damage. The operation, a significant one, began on 26 April in the Lower Dir district, was extended to the Buner district two days later and reached Swat a week later, on 8 May. In this manner, the military effectively blocked the entry of militants into Swat from other areas as well as curtailed threats of their sneaking out of the Valley.

Throughout the offensive, ground forces were supported by air and artillery units, often forcing the militants to retreat without offering much resistance. According to official sources, about 1300 militants were killed, among them the organisation’s second and third-tier leadership. Meanwhile, the government is said to be pursuing the senior Taliban leadership. (There were even unconfirmed reports of the killing of Maulana Fazlullah, also known as Radio Mullah, the chief of the Swat Taliban.) But all is not rosy and there are many questions still haunting the people of the Swat as well as Pakistanis from outside the district.

Before delving into the post-conflict issues requiring attention, it is important to remember that the military operation is far from over. There is still a Taliban presence in the area and the army has said that it will need to be on the offensive for approximately two more months. Asymmetrical warfare, such as that between the Taliban and the Pakistan Army, is invariably a protracted and complicated one. At this stage, the army cannot sustain the kind of heavy offensive seen in the last month for fear of arousing public disapproval over the extent of the damage done. But it also cannot stop the operation altogether at a time when its control over the area is both tentative and incomplete. The practical outcome of this quandary is that Swat will have a heavy military presence for some time to come. The military itself has said as much, claiming that it will need about a year to develop the civilian administrative structure, which is, unsurprisingly, in tatters.

Cleaning up Taliban lake
The foremost question, then, is whether the operation can bring sustainable peace to an area which has been in the flames of war for the past two years. On the ground, there is much pessimism about the prospect of peace through military means, a point of view reinforced by the survival of the top Taliban leadership. Most observers and locals believe that the elimination of foot soldiers, while  leaders roam free, cannot bring peace: the dispersed militants can always regroup to once again challenge the state. After all, three earlier operations did fail to eliminate the Taliban leadership in Swat with the militants emerging more powerful and gaining more territory every time. There was even a cartoon in the English daily Dawn in June 05 showing a lake, “Taliban lake” ,in which most of the small fishes had been netted, while the big ones continued to roam free.

Even if peace does return to Swat, that the insurgency has permanently changed the power dynamics of the district is undeniable. As the Taliban movement took root, the group’s cadres, who often belonged to the lowest income bracket, held great say over the lives of the public. Unsurprisingly, most of the influential families fled the area as the local security apparatus collapsed. Now, after the rout of the Taliban, the aggrieved citizens may well wish to take revenge on the Taliban cadre, and even their families. Called badal in Pashto, this concept of revenge is one of the dominant characteristics of any Pashtun society, and may lead to further bloodshed in the area. Indeed, badal may have been one of the factors leading to the collapse of the February peace deal. The Taliban were aware that once peace was restored to the area, they would have no excuses to carry their guns. In such a scenario, they would become the most vulnerable section of the society, easy targets to all those they had earlier wronged.

Next on the list of sensitive issues is the matter of the Niazm-e-Adl Regulations (NAR), or imposition of Sharia in Swat, which was negotiated with Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) leader Sufi Mohammad. The TNSM had lost much of its public appeal after its Afghan adventure in 2001. Sufi Mohammad himself was in prison following his return from Afghanistan, after most of his 10,000 fighters were either killed or captured by American and Northern Alliance forces. He was subsequently released in 2008, after renouncing violence. But the release is said to largely be a result of Islamabad’s attempt to use him to counter the growing Taliban influence in the NWFP. After the government concluded the ill-fated Nizam-e-Adl Regulations with Sufi Mohammed, he was hailed as a peacemaker. Now, government policy in the region has clearly shifted: On 4 June, security forces arrested several senior TNSM leaders. This puts a question mark over the future of Sharia in the area. Perhaps more importantly, it bring up the issue of the public’s lack of confidence in a state which appears to keep changing its mind on how exactly to deal with militancy.

Beyond Sharia, in the coming months, the public will be closely watching the government’s handling of the Swat refugees. Even with the fighting still continuing it is clear that this operation has also caused one of the largest displacement in the country’s history. Over two million people have left their homes for safer places due to the fighting, and caring for them will be a test for the government. Rehabilitating such a large number of people is a mammoth task. Any error on the part of the government would be political suicidal. The IDPs, understandably, bear little goodwill towards the Taliban. The government could therefore channel this feeling against militancy to its advantage. It will, however, be the loser if it fails to address their problems adequately.

Finally, it is crucial to consider the impact the Swat operation may have on other parts of the NWFP and the tribal areas. The army’s strategy of restricting the militants to a particular area during the fighting worked well in Swat as fighters from other areas could not come to aid their friends. The effectiveness of this operation will naturally convey to the militants a message that the military is serious in eliminating them. This will put them on the defensive, a significant turnabout in the status quo as the militants have been on the offensive since the insurgency began in the tribal areas and parts of NWFP. This recent success will also put a lid on rumours that the army was not sincere in eliminating the Taliban and will play an effective role in building national consensus against the tide of Talibanisation.

It goes without saying that a great deal is at stake in this ongoing battle for north-western Pakistan, including regional stability, the future of the ‘war on terror’ and, of course, the security of Pakistan. Fortunately, this time around, Islamabad and the Pakistan Army had the much-needed public approval for the operation. Both the government and the army need to understand that if they do not put this mandate to proper use, public support will not be forthcoming in the future. The repercussions of wasting this opportunity to bring peace are likely to disastrous, not only for Pakistan but also for the region and the world.

First appeared in Himal Southasian web exclusive on Swat.

Engulphed in the hills

June 13, 2009

To understand the current conflict in Swat, one has to look back to 1897.

“A year hath passed since Aurangzeb is encamped against us,

Disordered and perplexed in appearance, and wounded in the heart.
It is now year after year, that his nobles fall in battle;
But his armies swept away, who shall number them!
The treasures of India have been spread before us:
The red gold muhurs have been engulphed in the hills.”

– Khushal Khan Khattak, from “An Ode to Spring”

When the Pashtun warrior poet Khushal Khan Khattak composed these lines in the 1670s, there was much turmoil in his part of the Subcontinent. The Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb had personally led an army to quell an uprising west of the Indus River, and was camped at the town of Attock, in the northern part of modern-day Punjab province. Meanwhile, the uprising was led by Khushal, the chief of the Khattak tribe, centred on what is today the Northwest Frontier Province. Some three centuries later, this same region is today in the midst of another brutal conflict. Just over the Hindukush mountains, Americans are encamped in Afghanistan. Indeed, Khushal’s vivid depiction of Aurangzeb’s situation is just as apt in describing the US predicament in Afghanistan and across the Durand Line, in NWFP and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

To fully understand the complexity of the situation, one must go back to the Great Game days of the British Raj. NWFP itself was, of course, a British invention marking the end to a half-century of colonial experimentation in Southasia. Beginning with their arrival in the area and up until the end of that century, the British left the administration of the ‘Frontier’ to Punjab. The 1901 creation of the new province by Viceroy George Curzon was, in words of the US diplomat James W Spain, a “struggle for control” and “a control which was never completely established and a struggle which ended only when the British departed in 1947.” When Curzon took over as viceroy in 1899, about 100,000 British forces were deployed across the area; this was only two years after the Pashtun uprising of 1897, after all, for which the British had been notably unprepared.

It was 10 June 1897 when British force arrived in Tochi, in Waziristan, to select a place where they could build their forces. The tribesmen were alarmed with this arrival, as they were under official disapprobation for killing a Hindu a year earlier. Despite the fact that the local communities had earlier had welcomed them, tribal fighters attacked the British. The news of this quickly spread to other parts of the Frontier. The following month in Malakand, one Saidullah, whom the British dubbed the ‘Mad Mullah’, took a few followers to declare jihad on the British. Within a few days, he had gathered some 20,000 people, and thereafter attacked British positions in Chakdarra and the Malakand pass. After a week of fighting, the tribesmen dispersed, having lost around 3000 men. The unrest continued for the next several months, however, as tribes in neighbouring areas rose up against the British. The eventual ‘pacification’ took three years and around 75,000 troops.

During the Raj, FATA was known as Yaghistan, or the Land of the Unruly. Although several tribal ‘agencies’ were set up in the late 19th century, and NWFP was formally created in 1901, it was only in 1926 that the British began to refer specifically to ‘tribal areas’, which were placed directly under the control of the government of India. The 1897 uprising was a huge blow to the British. After studying the matter for a year, Curzon proposed making the Frontier district into a separate unit, thus bringing the tribal territory directly under colonial rule. In Curzon’s words, the rationale behind this direct rule was to “entrust tribal management exclusively to those who know the tribes”, a policy that eventually came to be known as the Modified Close Border Policy. This stood in contrast to the two previous British policies in the area, the Close Border System and the Forward School of Thought. The former was based on the assumption that “the government should not assume responsibility for any area it was unable or unwilling to establish as an integral part of its domain,” while the latter advocated the extension of British frontiers as far north and west as possible. Also in stark contrast to these earlier approaches, the new strategy was able to bring peace to the Frontier for decades.

By 1919, however, the area was again drifting into conflict, with local tribesmen taking up arms following the third Anglo-Afghan war. At this point, the British reverted to following a slightly modified Forward Policy; military cantonments were setup in the Wana and Razmak areas of Waziristan, and a road linking Wana, Razmak and Miranshah was constructed. The aim of all this activity was to control the lawless tribal belt from within. And indeed, no major uprisings took place during the following decade, which was known as the Quiet Twenties. Again, however, things did not remain peaceful for long. In 1930, the communities around Peshawar rose up against the British, while tribesmen in Waziristan rebelled in 1936, 1937 and 1938.

In the end, it seemed quite clear that shifting between two different sets of policies, advocating different goals and modes of operations, was unable to bring peace to the area. At the time of their departure in 1947, the British knew that they had failed to resolve issues in the Frontier. As one colonial official, W K Fraser-Tytler, observed, the British left Pakistan in “a fluid, difficult situation fraught with much danger for the future”.

With Independence, the tribal areas merged into the new state of Pakistan without any significant trouble. The federal government at the time, as well as subsequent ones, made no changes to the manner in which these areas were administered. Furthermore, in more than six decades, few modifications have been made to absorb changes arising out of progress in education or technology. Literacy rates in FATA, for instance, remain significantly segregated by gender (with the female rate at just 0.8 percent), while health facilities and communications infrastructure are either abysmal or non-existent. This lack of interest in developing the area inevitably pushed the state and tribesmen in opposite directions; the government’s grip continued to decline, while the tribal communities remained mired in poverty, illiteracy and primitive living conditions. Nevertheless, the area remained relatively peaceful. All that changed, however, with the ouster of the Taliban from Kabul following the attacks in the US of 11 September 2001.

Today, the pattern of militancy plaguing the province and the tribal areas is remarkably similar to that of the 1897 uprising. The difference, however, is that this time the violence is on a much larger scale. The conflict has also spread to other areas, including the current struggle in the Swat. Yet here, too, the militancy is a direct result of the failure of the state to fully address the needs of the region, which has been a constant complaint for centuries now. The reigning peace in FATA had been a superficial one, and it began to unravel quickly with the arrival of fighters from Afghanistan. (As one William Barton noted some 10 years before the British departure, “Complete pacification of the tribal hinterland, though it may seem the only logical course for a great empire to follow, must be ruled out as beyond the sphere of practical politics.”) The locals were no strangers to militancy, as parts of the area were turned into base camps for jihadis fighting USSR during the Afghan war, with active US backing and Saudi petrodollars financed militarisation of tribesmen and Pashtun society. As a consequence, the fleeing fighters easily found succour among the locals – and when the Pakistan Army arrived in the area, the disgruntled tribesmen rose up against the state.

Yet much of what constitutes the current Taliban demand, such as the imposition of Sharia law, was adopted only much later. Today, the new military offensive in Swat, Dir and Buner is one of the largest since the beginning of this conflict (the current Swat operation began in October 2007), with the army hinting that it wants to ensure a complete victory over the militants. This is hardly a realistic goal, however. In recent weeks, two military operations have failed to dislodge the Taliban from the Swat Valley. Rather, the militants have emerged stronger, occupying more territory after each attempt. Beyond the battleground, Islamabad’s carrot-and stick-policy, unveiled last year, has likewise failed to restrain militants from making further territorial gains.

In a sense, the foremost obstacle today to weeding out the Taliban in Swat and the surrounding territory is the public’s reluctance to oppose them in the open. There is much confusion on the issue, contributed to by the many conspiracy theories in circulation about the insurgency: the Taliban is being used by Pakistani intelligence; the US and India are using Afghanistan as a base to destabilise Pakistan; the US wants to use the threat of militant takeover to take away Pakistan’s nuclear weaponry. To a great extent, these contradictory rumours have blurred the line between what is good for the country and what is not – most notably, whether or not the Taliban is harming Pakistan. There is a general feeling at the national level that the Taliban are responsible for the current mess, a feeling that has developed after the Swat exodus. However, the displaced families themselves blame the army and Taliban equally for their plight, and most with whom this writer spoke in the camps are outspoken in their pessimism about the potential for peace following the military operation. Previous failures in such attempts, they say, are hard to ignore.

The militants, meanwhile, have been able to take full advantage of this divided opinion, creating discontent against state action by attacking public targets when pressed against the wall by the military. In all of this, the minority who seeks the outright elimination of the Taliban has become effectively sidelined, largely because there exists today a general perception in Pakistan that the government is doing too much in response to American demands. Apart from a section of liberals, most segments of society today believe that the war is not in the interest of Pakistan. While such liberal voices are somewhat louder in the current context than they have been in the past, if the military operation continues for a long period, they will undoubtedly again be muted by hardliners and the rightwing media. Any way one looks at it, Islamabad is today facing the symptoms of the same problem faced by Lord Curzon’s colonial officers: a justifiable lack of trust in a state that has long failed to do its duty by the people.

A version of this article appeared in Himal Southasian June 2009.

Mullah Radio

May 1, 2009

By using illegal FM radio broadcasts, militants in Pakistan are gaining the stature of a parallel government. But one government response shows that the militants have power but not credibility.

Here is a brief sample of a typical radio broadcast given recently by Maulana Shah Doran, a cleric who has risen to fame for his fiery transmissions in the Swat Valley: “I was coming to meet you people, but the infidels” – the army, police, politicians – “were there, so I cancelled my plans to visit the village of Shamozai Zarkhela. These infidels are opposing Sharia, and I say that if they do not implement it, we will enforce it on our own … they should be torn to pieces instead of being beheaded.”

Residents estimate that the militancy that is currently plaguing the valley owes some 90 percent of its strength to a single illegal FM radio station – the same that now broadcasts Maulana Shah Doran – set up by a local cleric in 2006. The story starts back in 1994, when Maulana Sufi Mohammad, the head of the Tehrek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, or TNSM), began to wage a struggle against the state, demanding the implementation of Sharia in the Malakand division of Swat (see accompanying story, “The establishment a Taliban emirate”). In 2001, Maulana Sufi took 10,000 men to fight the Americans in Afghanistan, and suffered heavy casualties. After fleeing back to Pakistan, the Maulana was imprisoned for seven years. But his son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, was released on bail.

Back in Swat, Fazlullah set up an illegal FM radio station, known as Fazlullah FM, broadcasting on 92 megahertz. The technology to do so was not only quite affordable, costing as little as PKR 15,000 (less than USD 200); it was also completely portable, thus allowing its owners to easily outpace the authorities’ attempts to shut them down. Despite the broadcast’s relatively small coverage area (it was at first unable even to reach the rim of the Swat Valley), Fazlullah’s nightly tirades against the Americans and then-President Pervez Musharraf quickly earned him a degree of fame among the locals, who dubbed him the ‘Radio Mullah’. Initially, Fazlullah confined his rhetoric to reformation, which included the recitation and translation of the Quran and Hadith (traditions), as well as the observance of purdah for women. Using the electronic medium, he also advised the destruction of television sets, CDs and VCRs, which he said were sources of loose morality. One particularly insidious element of Fazlullah’s doctrine was vehement opposition to the government’s anti-polio campaign, which he claimed was a Western scheme to render Muslims infertile.

Eventually, Fazlullah decided to establish a seminary in his native village of Imam Dheri. When he appealed for donations on his broadcast, he received an incredible response. At that time, in the early days, Fazlullah was listened to mostly by women at home (and children); indeed, this was the first time that women of the area had ever been able to listen directly to a preaching mullah, as they are traditionally absent from the actual sermons. At his beckoning, these women donated their jewellery en masse, and he amassed a fortune amounting to millions of rupees. But Fazlullah’s popularity among women began to change in late October 2007, when militants loyal to Fazlullah beheaded four policemen, parading their severed heads through Swat. The women started to be less excited about Fazlullah. This incident also marked the start of a reign of fear, as local zealots increasingly looked to the Radio Mullah to fuel a war for the enforcement of Sharia as well as against opponents including politicians, the army, the police and those supporting them. As fighting intensified, the station became increasingly powerful – and ever more threatening to the army, police, politicians and civilians.

The broader reaction mirrored that of the women, though with an ironic twist. In the beginning, the local menfolk and powerbrokers had not taken Fazlullah’s broadcasts particularly seriously. But after a ban was enacted on women visiting markets and on education for girls – both of which were spearheaded by the radio station – the number of listeners increased substantially. This was as much out of fear as enthusiasm, however, with the population now desperate to stay informed on exactly what the militants were planning – what they would say about the fighting, at whom they would aim their threats on any given day. While the Pakistan Army did briefly attempt to jam the broadcasts, by playing music at the same frequency, the militants were quickly able to adapt, by simply changing their broadcast frequency or moving their equipment around.

Today, the station’s transmissions run two hours, from eight to ten every evening, with a rebroadcast in the morning from seven to nine. It is not clear from which city they are operating. Programmes include sermons based on Quranic verses, threats to ‘opponents’ and a slot titled “Good News”. This last generally includes news of various types of violence – including Islamist actions, but also deaths from natural calamities, epidemics, etc – at the national and international level. The broadcasts have three principal speakers: Fazlullah, Maulana Shah Doran and a third named Maulana Mohammad Alam. With Fazlullah, for unknown reasons, having taken a back seat during the recent fighting, Maulana Shah has emerged as the key presenter. He tends to use derisive language against those in power in Islamabad, calling President Asif Ali Zardari gaddari, Urdu for traitor, and calling Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani the ‘prime donkey’. He tends to end his broadcasts by hurling abuses at security officials, and issuing threats to policemen by name.

Whether or not the Swat Taliban is currently winning or losing in its fight against the state, it is certainly winning the propaganda war – with no more than a modest radio transmitter. The state, meanwhile, with all of its resources, has been unable to either shut the broadcast down or contain its impact. Despite the full understanding of the government and army of the threat this represents for rule of law and civil discourse, the broadcasts in Swat have only gone from strength to strength. Indeed, the range is steadily increasing, and today can be heard in Chakdara and parts of Mardan, up to 60 km away. Considering the direct impact that the station has had over the past three years, it seems fairly clear what to expect from this increased radio footprint. Today, Fazlullah is requesting that the government legalise his radio station. Given the significant increase in power wielded by the militants following the recent signing of a ‘peace agreement’ between the Swat Taliban and the provincial government, it should not be surprising if that happens. This would inevitably have broad ramifications for the rest of the country.

Air wars
Illegal FM is also flourishing in Khyber Agency, just to the west of Peshawar. Here, a station is run by a militant commander, Mangal Bagh, of the Lashkar-e-Islam (LI, the Army of Islam), a hardline organisation opposed to shrines, Sufi influence and faith healers. Now 35, Bagh was a bus cleaner in 2001 when he joined the secular Awami National Party, and quickly rose to be secretary of the transport association of the city of Bara, near Peshawar. He underwent something of religious conversion and, in 2002, undertook a four-month tablighi (proselytising) trip, after which he joined LI.

Not long after his return, by July 2004 Mufti Munir Shakir, then the head of LI, and Pir Saifur Rehman, of a second militant group called Ansar-ul-Islam, had both set up illegal FM broadcasts in order to propagate their views. Indeed, a half-decade ago, up to nine illegal FM stations were operating in the Khyber Agency. Today, however, nearly all of these have closed, having fallen to the influence of Lashkar-e-Islam and Ansar-ul-Islam. The broadcasts run by these two groups, meanwhile, compete directly with each other. Locals listen raptly to both, in order to be up on the claims and counterclaims of both organisations – spats that could quickly have direct impacts on their lives. These two groups have clashed physically on several occasions, ending in the death of many. After one such clash, which left 21 people dead, a tribal jirga asked both groups to leave the agency. Subsequently, Mufti and Pir who were not locals, coming from Hangu District in the NWFP and Afghanistan, respectively, were forced to leave. At that point, Mangal Bagh, by then an important commander, assumed charge of LI. Today he virtually controls Khyber Agency.

Broadcasting at 94.2 megahertz, Bagh spends most his 45-minute shows either spouting propaganda against LI opponents, or preaching his own version of Islam. Pirs (spiritual figures), faith healers and shrines are his direct targets, and are lambasted for purportedly being un-Islamic. Like Fazlullah’s set-up in Swat, Bagh’s equipment is mobile, and much of the time he is able to cover even parts of Peshawar. A second transmitter has recently been set up, allowing him to operate in Bara and broadcast his edicts and teachings to the people of Tirah, about 60 km away from Peshawar.
Also similar to what took place in Swat, at first Bagh’s broadcasts were limited to recitations of the Quran, Hadith and the preaching of virtue. With the passage of time, however, its tone has become increasingly aggressive against his opponents. In March 2008, Bagh’s followers attacked a 400-year-old shrine in the Shaikhan area of Peshawar, killing 12 people and destroying the tomb. On 5 March this year, militants bombed the shrine of Sufi poet Rehman Baba, regarded as the national poet of the Pashtun; security officials blamed Bagh. Community leaders, backed by some key political figures, have now requested the government to take action against Bagh, threatening that otherwise they will ‘take care’ of him themselves.

Recapturing ears
There have been a few notable attempts to counter militant radio. One is a private venture, the Pak-Afghan Cross-border Radio Training and Production (PACT), started in 2004 by John Butt, a Muslim chaplain at Cambridge University and broadcasting in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. PACT’s flagship program, “Da Pulay Poray” or Across the Borderline, is a two-hour show in which journalists from both sides of the Durand Line report on a range of social, cultural and other relevant issues.

While there has been significant criticism regarding the government’s seeming inability to do much to counter the growing influence of these militant-operated radio broadcasts, it is not true that nothing is being done on the official front, either. In May 2006, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Secretariat, which governs these areas, launched its own radio channel, by the name of Radio Khyber. Today, this station airs six hours of programmes daily in three-hour stints, during the day and night. It offers programming focused particularly on the youth, the elderly and women, including news and reports on health, sanitation, education and militancy. The broadcast area is quite large, able to be heard in Peshawar, Mardan, Malakand, Mohmand Agency, parts of Bajaur and even in Swat.

Radio Khyber, broadcasting at 91 megahertz, is thus able to reach many more people than are the individual militant broadcasts, and the local people are making it clear which they prefer and why. The station currently employs around 15 reporters, with the explicit aim of attempting to offer objective, independent reporting and analysis of the often complicated situation on the ground in Khyber Agency and the surrounding area. Somewhat surprisingly, the station has thus far remained free of intimidation by militants. The reason for this is undoubtedly the strong backing that the channel has received from the local community; workers at the station claim to receive some 300 telephone calls and 200 letters every week, from listeners requesting particular songs or specially focused news analysis. This is due to a very basic broadcast formula in comparison to the harangues on 94.2 and elsewhere: honest focus on real issues affecting ordinary citizens. Clearly this is a significant change from the militant broadcasts, which preach fear, broadcast threats and fervently focus on issues of importance to the mullahs – and not to the local communities themselves. How ironic that a government station is seen to be more popular and credible than private stations. But that is what happens when the airwaves are hijacked by militancy.

A version of this article appeared in Himal Southasian April 2009 issue.

Swat: Pakistan’s lost paradise

April 20, 2009

At Landikai check-post at the start of Swat a board installed by army reads, “Long live people of Swat.” The message is self-explnatory as the people of this idyllic valley definately deserve praies for facing the anarchic force of terror and prescution for around two years.

Mingora, the capital of Swat lies in ruins. Buildings pockmarked and blemished with bullets and blasts narrate their own woes. The narrow lanes of Bunrh quarter on the eastern tip of the city are deserted while its occupants- fair skinned dancing girls of the valley left for safer places to eke out a living amid persecution and killing. They left behind empty streets where unusual silence pervades in a sharp contrast to past when harmonium and Rubab melodies reverberated till late night.

Close to Bunrh is situated Green Chowk, which earned notoriety after militants started to throw beheaded bodies of their opponents in this square. Towards the northern end of city, at Fizaghat picnic point one walks by a deserted park on the banks of river Swat. Across the river Fazlullah’s sprawling Mamdheri complex overshadows the houses of in the village of same name.

This is the way story of Swat is being re-written in blood and it is not yet over while provincial government has enforced the Niazm-e-Adal Regulations in the district in a desperate bid to restore peace to the valley. Now Taliban are making emboldened strides towards Buner and other parts of the Malakand division.

Savastu to Swat

Swat valley is situated some 135 kilometers north of Peshawar and the river of same name runs through it. The valley is famous for its orchards, fascinating landscape, gushing and crystal clear streams, historical sites, alpine lakes and modern tourist resorts. In ancient texts Swat appears as ‘Savastu’ meaning ‘good dwelling place’ and Sanskrit texts describe it as ‘Uddiyana’ or ‘garden’.

In 327 BC, Alexander the Great army conquered Swat and it remained under Greek administration till 307 BC. The Greeks were followed by Murayans and Chandra Gupta annexed this area into his kingdom and Swat prospered under his grandson Asoka. Following the collapse of Muryan dynasty, Bactrian Greek, Scythian, Parthian, and Kushan ruled over the valley. Kushans were overthrown by the White Huns that were followed by Turk Shahi and Hindu Shahi rule.

In 11th century armies of Mahmud of Ghazni overrun Swat and later Ghurides and Mughals also ventured into Swat. Babar, the founder of Mughal dynasty tried to conquer Swat, but the war ended on peace deal. It was Akbar who attacked Swat and two of his famous aides Birbal and Abul Fazal were killed in the war and Mughals never become masters of Swat. In 1917, Miangul Shahzada Abdul Wadud, grandson of Saidu Baba, founded the state of Swat and it was also recognized by the British. In 1947, Wali of Swat decided to join Pakistan and it was finally merged into Pakistan on July 29, 1969.

Mad Mullah to Radio Mullah

Throughout history Mullahs have been dominant factor in Malakand. During the Frontier uprising of 1897, Mullah Mastan, whom British dubbed as ‘Mad Mullah’ rose up in arms against British.

During the crisis of Chitral in 1895, British occupied Malakand and Chakdara, which generated much resentment in Swat and in the mean time Mad Mullah declared war on British in July 1897 and tried to capture Malakand Fort. He claimed to have the help of invisible army from heaven, making himself invisible and feeding multitudes with a few grains of rice. Though his rebellion failed to achieve its objective of overthrowing British from Chakdara and Malakand; however, for a long time he continued to harass British in the area.

In 1994, around a century or so after Malakand uprising another Mullah, Maulana Sufi Mohammad chief of Tehrik Nifaz-e-Shariat Muhammadi (TNSM) took Malakand by the strom. Sufi, a Jamaat Islami (JI) activist in his early days, fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in early 1980s. In 1992 he founded his own organization TNSM which come to be known as ‘Black-Turbaned Brigade’ after its black flag and black turban of its activists. The aim of the organization was the implementation of the Shria in Malakand agency.

Sufi led an armed revolt against the government for the implementation of Islamic laws in Malakand agency in 1994 and the provincial government of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) accepted their demands and promulgated laws providing Qazi courts in the agency. In 2001, he led around 10,000 people into Afghanistan to fight against US forces along Taliban and most of his followers were either killed or captured and he was arrested upon his return in 2002 and was sent to prison for seven years and his outfit was also banned.

Sufi’s detention paved way for the emergence of his son-in-law Fazlullah, and in 2006 he setup an illegal FM radio station and earned fame for his fiery anti-western and Mushrraf speeches. His fiery broadcasts earned him the title of ‘Radio Mullah.’ Fazlullah’s growing power and increasing militant activities of his followers compelled government to take military action against him on October 27, 2007.

Niazm-e-Adl Regulations and beyond

In May 2007, the Mutthida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) government of NWFP and Fazlullah entered into an agreement. The agreement allowed Fazlullah to operate his radio channel in return for stopping opposition to polio vaccination and ban on display of arms in public. However, the agreement collapsed after army stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad and it led to Swat Operation on October 27, 2007, after the district drifted into lawlessness.

The Awami National Party (ANP) government which took over after February 2008 election signed a peace deal with militants on May 21, 2008, after a series of negotiations, but it collapsed on July 29. On February 16, 2009, the government agreed to enforce Sharia in the area and Taliban agreed to ceasefire.

On April 13, 2009, Presdient Asif Ali Zardari signed the Nizam-e-Adl Regulations in Malakand agency after parliament rectified it. This regulation is continuation of Qazi courts established in the agency by Aftab Ahmed Sherpao in1994 and has generated much debate in the country. Many observers termed surrender to militants, while the ANP and PPP governments are defending it on the grounds that it would restore peace in the area.

Apart from the heat it has generated, this move has emboldened the militants and they advanced on Buner, Lower and Upper Dir and will also try further territorial gains. Government for the time being playing down the threat despite international pressure; however, it would be impossible for her to ignore external pressure and Taliban encroachments and this may put the precarious peace deal into jeopardy.