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Taliban on the move?
 
By Imtiaz Gul

Weekly Pulse, Islamabad October 18, 2007

Swat – When scores of Mulla Sufi Mohammad’s volunteers were either mauled or caught by the US-led coalition forces in December 2001, and the cleric himself was thrown into the Dera Ismail Khan jail “for having instigated” innocent people into the pro-Taliban Jihad, few had believed that, instead of fading out, the cleric’s followers and his son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah would eventually metamorph into a real Taliban movement. On Oct 9, Fazlullah formed a volunteer force to “control the law and order” and traffic problems in Matta tehsil, of District Swat. The force, comprising up to 8,000 armed-to-teeth, reminisces the ‘Vice and Virtue Department’ the Taliban had set up to punish the non-believers or the criminals.

Soon after the formation of the volunteer force - Shaheen Commandos – began patrolling the roads in Matta and Kabal areas, the maverick Maulana Fazlullah has claimed to fixed the chronic traffic problems in his town and vowed to adjudicate matters in the light of Quran and Sunnah. Eyewitnesses heard the volunteers urging locals to lodge complaints on two cell-phone numbers displayed at different mosques.

Fazlullah also ridiculed a jirga that the administration had recently convened to address various social issues. He reminded his followers that during that meeting several elders demanded enforcement of Islamic Shariah laws in Swat district.

The formation of the Shaheen Commandos came as no surprise; intelligence officials, technocrats and officials associated with education institutions and utilities such as banks and power supply companies, have already been worried about the course of developments in the region, which has been gradually taken over by hardliners for multiple reasons.

“It is a reaction to socio-economic injustices,” warned a recent internal memo distributed among various law enforcement?. Unemployment, poverty, high-handedness of government officials, and a greater tolerance among the law enforcement agencies for the clerics and their activities have turned Bajaur, Malakand and Swat into Taliban strongholds, with the grip of provincial government slipping with every passing day.

Friends and acquaintances from Swat, for instance, keep narrating disturbing tales of the growing Taliban influence.
A friend, a government official, spoke of an accumulating rebellion in the region.
“We don’t feel secure any more, the slightest doubt on our religious credentials can drive us into destruction at the hands of Taliban,” said the friend, who recounted numerous tales of Taliban retribution.

Where is the government, we asked the friend?
None seem to exist and that is why the Taliban led by Fazlullah and masquerading as fearless reformers stalk the roads and streets of Swat, where militants blew up at least 100 music CD shops in the last three months or so. Since the beginning of July, there have been 53 incidents of bomb explosions, including three suicide bombings, claiming a total of 48 lives. That is not all. There has been an assassination attempt on an ANP leader and officials in the administration and their families have come under attack and many of them have now reportedly shifted to Islamabad. Unfortunately, Taliban mostly target women, girls’ schools, NGOs and shops that deal in means of recreation like the audio video CD shops.

The militants are also strongly against women employment they have asked government departments as well as NGO not to give jobs to women. While their threats to government organisations are indirect. There intimidation of private sector organisations and NGOs is direct; they usually write anonymous letters to these organisations warning them of dire consequences if they employ female workers.

Threats against bank officials for not wearing shalwar kameez, or those found missing particularly from Friday prayers meanwhile are common as hapless people look on at the self-righteous Taliban volunteers enforcing their own brand of morality on the civilian population, reminding them of the “medieval society” that the Afghan Taliban had created in most parts of Afghanistan between since Oct 1994 until their rout by coalition forces in December 2001.
“Once the hotspot of Pakistan’s tourism, Swat is fast emerging as a stronghold of the Talibanisation that has swept most of the southern districts of the NWFP and some northern districts as well. The war in Waziristan has been the focus of national attention, and rightly so given the implications of the rise of militancy in the tribal areas for the territorial integrity of the country. But the happenings in Swat also have profound relevance for Pakistan’s society,” this is how a local daily, editorialised the situation in the region.
Maulana Fazlullah also campaigns against lady health visitors, conducting anti-polio propaganda through his illegally operated FM radio, and instigating violence against NGOs imparting basic skills like embroidery and sewing to girls.

If locals and intelligence officials were to be believed, the state’s writ is increasingly shrinking in the region, and police withdrawn from some checkpoints in some of the worst affected tehsils of Swat, which are now being policed by militants. According to media reports, Fazlullah sent hundreds of his armed comrades to rescue two abducted women from the upscale Kanju Town in Swat and ‘bring to justice’ their alleged abductors who were paraded before a multitude of people as they await their fate to be decided by a self-appointed ‘Islamic court’.
While Pakistanis watch in awe how Pakistani and US forces regularly conduct surgical operations against Taliban militants in Waziristan, they also wonder as to how the state has allowed regression of these so-called settled areas into medieval ages.

Ironically, the meteoric rise of the Taliban in the last couple of years also raises questions about the intelligence and security apparatus. Locals claim that these agencies possess sufficient information on the militants’ operations but seem to look the other way when the Taliban are in action.

One wonders as to whether one or more among the intelligence agencies at all want to take these people to task by passing on information to the security agencies.
Many locals smell rat in the air and say the “free hand and freedom of action” available to Fazlullah’s Taliban might well be part of a plan.

In the absence of a concerted and sincere challenge to Fazlullah’s activities, locals fear, the region might soon witness the conditions – insecurity, injustice, and lack of central authority – that first forced Afghanistan into Talibanisation, and then the Waziristan region as well as other tribal agencies. The beheadings recently by the Taliban in the Mohmand Agency of FATA or punishments including executions the Taliban carried out in North Waziristan in particular since September 2005 provide ample proof of how the wave of Talibanisation could galvanise other regions where disempowered people desperately look for alternatives to get justice, employment and social security.

In the absence of a sincere effort to address these issues so critical to the common man, reversal of the situation will remain a far cry. Is the region being intentionally allowed to slip into chaos and religiosity?