Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes in areas of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) as the army has launched ground operations and air raids to “eliminate and expel” the Islamist militant groups commonly known as the Tehreek-e Taliban or the Taliban in Pakistan (TIP). The targeted districts border Swat, a well-watered mountain vale described as “paradise on earth” in Pakistani tourist brochures, where the provincial government tried to placate the Taliban by agreeing to implement Islamic law (sharia). The February agreement, the Nizam-e Adal regulation, was approved by the lower house of the Pakistani parliament on April 12 and signed into law soon afterward by the president, Asif Zardari. But since then, fighting has continued, with both sides accusing the other of breaching the peace. As of April 27, according to a cleric close to the TIP, talks with the provincial government about Swat are suspended.

Why the Pakistani army has decided to repulse the TIP advance so aggressively now, when it has only tentatively engaged them in the two previous years of insurgency in the area, is something of a mystery. Perhaps, after losing formal power with the 2008 ouster of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the army wanted security in the country to deteriorate to the extent that the populace would clamor for it to fend off the Islamists. With its advanced weaponry and mastery of the skies, the army could thus emerge as the savior of the nation and polish its tarnished reputation. (One is reminded of how the army regained its clout in Pakistani politics, after its surrender to Indian forces in East Pakistan/Bangladesh, by brutally crushing the insurgency in Baluchistan in the 1970s.) The army is the most sophisticated political grouping in Pakistan, and this episode may be yet another piece of political theater, directed and produced at General Headquarters.

The renewed fighting is puzzling because the accord between the provincial government, led by the Awami National Party (ANP), and the TIP was to have put a stop to the Islamists’ violent confrontation with Pakistani army and paramilitary forces that has been underway since 2007. The Taliban in Pakistan, like the militia of the same name in Afghanistan, hail mostly from the Pashtun ethnic group whose historical domain straddles the Durand Line, drawn by Britain in the nineteenth century to separate British India from Afghanistan. Some may have fought alongside the Afghan Taliban across the Line, but they are Pakistanis and their grievances are against their own local and national rulers. In February, having inflicted heavy casualties upon the army and taken civic control over the major towns of Swat, the Taliban compelled the ANP government into negotiations. To start the dialogue, authorities released Maulana Sufi Muhammad, who had been jailed on sedition charges after September 11, 2001 by Musharraf. Sufi Muhammad, the spiritual leader of the local Islamists, is the founder of the Tehreek-e Nifaz-e Sharia-e Muhammadi (which may be loosely translated as the Movement for the Implementation of Sharia). There is some speculation that he has also maintained a close relationship with Pakistani intelligence agencies since the early 1990s. Sufi Muhammad was the signatory to the spring accord, sent to the parliament and Zardari for ratification. The document guaranteed a cessation of hostilities and the establishment of Islamic courts in Swat. Though the details of the courts remain in dispute, in effect the state has surrendered its judicial, administrative and security authority, including police functions, to the local Islamic groups under the guidance of Sufi Muhammad, who incidentally is also the father-in-law of the leader of the region’s Taliban forces, Maulana Fazlullah.

The status of the accord is uncertain. It is worth recalling that Zardari stalled for two months after receiving the ANP bill, saying he would sign it only when “the writ of the government has been established” in the NWFP. Subsequent to its ratification, TIP units moved into neighboring districts of Lower Dir and Buner, prompting the latest sorties of the army. Islamabad appears to be reacting forcefully to contain the Taliban—and the official sway of sharia law—to Swat.

Yet it is obvious to Pakistanis that the initial ANP negotiations with the Islamists could not have been conducted without the active involvement of Pakistan’s military, intelligence agencies and Zardari’s cabinet (and, some speculate, the US). The “war” in Swat became intense in the last few months of 2008 after earlier ceasefires failed, in the face of the acute ineffectiveness of the army and the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary. Scores of soldiers died, and many others were reluctant to fight against their ethnic brethren. Though the Pakistani officer corps is comprised largely of men from the Punjabi center of the country, many of the rank and file are recruited from the NWFP, and the Frontier Constabulary is primarily Pashtun. The TIP broadcast its propaganda using mobile and handheld devices, meaning Pakistani state security was unable to block the transmissions. Thousands of refugees left the area, some blaming the army for its half-hearted campaign, and the local economy was destroyed. The army’s performance, indeed, has opened an arena for conspiracy theories about state collusion with the TIP.

The deeper question, however, is how the NWFP, once a hub of nationalist and leftist politics, came to be so deeply identified with radical Islamist movements. How this transformation occurred remains an unwritten chapter of Pakistani history. The fate of the accord in Swat hangs upon the degree to which the transformation is rooted in popular sentiment, but also upon the ability of the TIP to champion Swati causes that in some respects may have nothing to do with Islam.

From Nationalists to Islamists

The irony is that the ANP is the direct descendant of storied and secular Pashtun nationalist movements. Abdul Ghaffar Khan, grandfather of present ANP head Asfandyar Wali, was the founder of the Red Shirts, a highly disciplined non-violent movement that struggled for India’s freedom from Britain in close alliance with the Congress Party of Nehru. The fledgling Pakistani state consequently held him in much suspicion. Beginning in the 1950s, the secular National Awami Party led by Asfandyar’s father Wali Khan was synonymous with Pashtun politics and so strongly Pashtun nationalist that the state periodically accused it of secessionism. The party was banned in 1974 after a bomb killed a Pashtun minister from Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s cohort. Later Wali Khan was imprisoned for alleged sedition, leading his wife and others to create the ANP.

Historically, there have been significant ties of kinship and trade between Pashtuns in the NWFP and those across the border in Afghanistan. The Afghan government, from Pakistan’s independence in 1947, did not recognize the Durand Line. In turn, the Pakistanis suspected the Afghans of encouraging secessionist politics in their territory. At times, these Pashtun solidarities were indeed exploited by nationalist forces, some even demanding autonomy or independence. But from the 1980s onward, the Pakistani security agencies, charged with running a covert war against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, were able to rally Pashtuns (including Afghan refugees) under the banner of Islamic resistance. In the last two decades, the state has deployed Islamic symbols and political discourse to diffuse a progressive, nationalistic and, at times, separatist movement within its borders and to assert its influence over Afghanistan.

Nationalist parties lost the most in this transition, so much so that in the 2002 elections held under Musharraf, the secular ANP was defeated even in their traditional strongholds by the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal coalition of Islamist parties. The Islamists won 49 of the 99 seats in the NWFP assembly, as part of by far the most impressive showing for an openly religious party in Pakistani history. It can be argued that, in the post-September 11 world, the religious parties simply benefited from the widespread opposition to the US-led war in Afghanistan. But they were also vocal in denouncing the military’s pervasive role in politics, a sure way to attract support. Within two years, however, the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal was bargaining with Gen. Musharraf and Afghanistan was still a theater of war, leaving the ANP with a political opening. The ANP worked hard to regain its electoral footing, and in 2008 the party took 48 seats in the provincial assembly, to a mere 14 for the Islamists. The Islamists had made inroads, but the ANP is not its old self. It has shed the more progressive rhetoric of its past and shored up its support by concentrating on the Pashtun national question; the gamble may have paid off.

Though the ANP once forged a coalition with Islamists in the 1970s, it is still surprising to see one of the most secular elements in Pakistani politics at the forefront of an agreement with the TIP. It is conceivable that the ANP leadership is accepting as political reality the notion that the people themselves have moved from a secular nationalist position to an Islamist (nationalist) one.

Its electoral gains notwithstanding, the ANP was under considerable pressure in the Swat area over course of the last decade. In the past two years, several of its deputies in the provincial and national assemblies—all of them large landowners—have been attacked (and, in some cases, assassinated) by the TIP. Many party sympathizers have decamped or changed allegiances as a result. That said, the ruling elite’s choice of the ANP as negotiating partner with the Taliban converts the peace process into an intra-Pashtun dialogue. The ANP may have calculated that in the long run it could keep its nationalist credentials alive by working toward a ceasefire and bringing peace to the region, albeit not entirely on its own terms, ensuring that no more “Pashtun” blood would be spilled.

The Poor of “Paradise on Earth”

And there is likely a class dimension as well. The Taliban have plainly appealed to smoldering anti-feudal resentments in the Swat valley in recruiting their cadre. A handful of families own the fruit orchards and cow pastures that are the main sources of livelihood in the valley, and their agreements with tenant farmers are often honored in the breach. Wages for rural labor are low. The large landlords (khans) are also likely to hold the concessions for the timber forests and the contracts to operate the gemstone mines that also employ the working class of Swat. “Paradise on earth” or not, the Swat valley has seen a large percentage of its able-bodied men out-migrate since the 1950s. Swati labor was absorbed into the textile industry in Karachi and other towns and then moved en masse to the Gulf states in the 1970s. These laborers’ families can at least rely on remittances to supplement their meager income. But the men left behind, disproportionately unskilled and ill-educated, face grim economic prospects indeed.

Until 1969, Swat was run as a princely state under an autocratic wali, in a continuation of the administrative structure set up under the British. Though he is remembered as benevolent and forward-looking in his social policies, the wali held a complete monopoly over taxation and the exploitation of natural and mineral resources. Revenue collection rights were given to elites and every household was taxed at a high rate to fill the state’s coffers. The princely state had its own laws and also the privilege of raising an army; indeed, the wali had a personal guard, a cavalry unit and heavy artillery. The Taliban’s desire for autonomy has a precedent.

As the condition of the poor worsened in the 1960s, Swat witnessed its share of communist-led peasant movements. While the major peasant takeovers during 1970-1974 were in Hastnagar, the ancestral home of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, similar actions were also reported in Swat and the adjacent Malakand area—the heart of Taliban country today. The Hashtnagar movement, unique in the history of peasant struggle in Pakistan, started in the late 1960s when newly invigorated Maoist groups organized peasants to fight for the eradication of feudal taxes and a more just tenancy system. At the height of the movement, in some areas of the NWFP smallholders, tenant farmers and laborers forced many large landowners to flee the villages to the cities and captured fallow land, distributing it among landless peasantry. In Hashtnagar and Malakand, a number of tenants refused to give those khans who had left the area any share of the crop at all. The struggle turned violent, with significant loss of life and property, and thousands were arrested.

By 1972, after Bangladesh’s liberation, the NWFP had a National Awami Party government in coalition with an Islamist party, the Jamaat-e Ulama-e Islam. At that time, Wali Khan was the leader of the party and a political opponent of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the newly elected prime minister and the father of the late Benazir. Some would argue that Bhutto tolerated the peasant movement as it helped in destabilizing the provincial government of his political opponents. Although the Maoists always denied this association, they had indeed supported Bhutto’s ascendancy in Pakistani politics and had ideological disagreements with Wali Khan over his closeness to more pro-Soviet communist groups. Wali Khan’s nationalist and secular party was firmly against the class-based peasant struggle, however. It sought to divide the movement by confronting the peasantry partly on the basis of identity politics, raising the issue of Pashtun solidarity. The landed gentry naturally applauded. The provincial government eventually subdued peasant radicalism by forming a counter-coalition of small and large landholders. As the rural economy in the NWFP had been reoriented by the green revolution toward production of cash crops—tobacco, sugarcane and cotton—even the small and middle peasantry had prospered alongside the khans. There were some minor victories for the peasants as the right of landlords to evict tenants was rescinded. Yet, by and large, the structural imbalance between landowners and landless peasants stayed in place.

The patchwork remedies for periodic economic crisis in Swat have failed to date to provide opportunities for upward mobility to the region’s poor. It would be a fallacy to say that all present-day militancy in the region stems from class anger. It is no coincidence, however, that the TIP has targeted large landholders, levying taxes on gemstone mines and forcing lumber contractors to offer job opportunities to locals. There is some evidence that the TIP have themselves played Pashtun ethnic politics in the process. There are settled groups of Gujjar, a traditional cattle grazing and farming community that does not speak Pashtu, who have been linked to contracts in the mines or access to the forests and grazing grounds. Many Gujjar have fled the area, in what appears to be (at least de facto) ethnic cleansing.

Why Talk to the Taliban?

Time will tell if the accord on implementation of sharia is a permanent cession of state power to the TIP in Swat. The question remains: Why did the secular nationalist ANP negotiate with the Islamists in the first place? One obvious answer could be that the ANP worked as a front for the Pakistani military, which wanted to “pacify” Swat so that it could concentrate its forces either along the western border with Afghanistan (as the US wants it to do) or redeploy along the eastern border with India. A strategic retreat by the state from Swat under a negotiated peace would guarantee that the TIP would be contained within the mountainous region and not threaten the heart of the NWFP and its tobacco- and sugarcane-growing districts of Mardan and Charsaddah. It would also protect the national highway, the main artery that is used to transport supplies to the NATO forces in Afghanistan. More importantly, such a move would safeguard the Nowshera district, which is home to three army cantonments, at Nowshera, Cherat and Risalpour. Nowshera itself houses the army’s School of Artillery, the School of Army Supply Corps, the Pakistan Army Supply Corps Center, the Pakistan Army Armored Corps Center and the School of Armor. The district is adjacent to Swat.

Another answer is that there was no alternative if Swat was to know peace once more. Peace in the region, albeit under the TIP’s dominion, could enable the khans to return to extract wealth from their lands. They will, of course, have to pay the taxes of the local TIP leadership, which will in turn guarantee their safety and provide them with the needed labor. This scenario would resemble the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan itself. Although backed by Pakistani intelligence, the Afghan Taliban were initially greeted with some relief by the population, which had been ravaged by the civil war that followed the exit of the Soviets. Hence, the Taliban “takeover” of Swat may be best understood as a reassertion of the status quo and the feudal order through a reassertion of Pashtun identity politics. The TIP is not a class-based party; it can make alliances with any group as long as its authority is not challenged. The ANP may seek merely to aid its allied khans in their quest (literally) to stay alive and healthy. It may also be a way of containing the TIP in the mountainous region and hence keeping the more strategically and financially important lowlands out of the Islamists’ hands.

The challenges faced by Pakistan’s democratic and civilian groups are now manifold. As the 2008 election results show, when given a chance, the Pakistani people may choose to vote against both the Islamist groups and the party of the generals. Yet, in Pakistan, the mere restoration of democratic forms of governance is not enough. The governing elite has yet to address the issues of national integrity and consensus among different provinces and ethnic groups. A much deeper sensitivity to the problems of poverty and economic deprivation, moreover, is needed for democratic interventions to be meaningful. Time and again, the eradication of illiteracy, poverty and social injustice has been left for another day, with consequences that are clearly evident in the dire situation in Swat today.

Finally, although the Pakistani and international media continuously portrays the accord in Swat as the capitulation of the state to forces that are “barbaric” in their treatment of women and that flaunt democratic forms of governance, it is clear that the impetus for the accord came from the state. There is, moreover, another insurgency going on in the province of Balochistan where secular and nationalist Baloch are fighting for provincial autonomy and greater control over the abundant natural resources in the region. Again, this struggle for provincial rights is as old as Pakistan’s own existence. The army has been relentless in its repression of the Baloch insurgency, using artillery, helicopter gunships and regular ground forces, while the shadowy intelligence services have carried out numerous assassinations. The organs of the state have killed Baloch leaders with impunity and displaced many thousands from their homes, on a scale at least equal to the disaster in the NWFP (and probably far greater). Why could there not be a peace agreement with the Baloch, who are secular and anti-Islamist in political orientation, if there can be one with the TIP? It is at such moments that conspiracy theories take shape about the state’s true role and speculation starts about the vital question of Pakistan’s very survival.

How to cite this article:

Kamran Asdar Ali "Pakistan’s Troubled “Paradise on Earth”," Middle East Report Online, April 29, 2009.
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