Friday, April 25, 2008

Why the Swat peace moves are critical By Rahimullah Yusufzai

Why the Swat peace moves are critical By Rahimullah Yusufzai
The News, April 26, 2008

Can Maulana Sufi Mohammad deliver peace to Swat and keep militants in check in Malakand region? That is the question on everyone's mind now that the aged founder of the banned Islamic group, Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), has been released after more than six years of imprisonment.

His release signalled acceleration of reconciliation efforts started by the newly-elected coalition government of NWFP. It was part of efforts to tackle the conflict in militancy-hit Swat district and restore peace in the once peaceful valley.

Sufi Mohammad, black-turbaned like his TNSM followers, walked to freedom from a public hospital in Peshawar where he had been shifted some months ago by the caretaker government. It coincided with the signing of an agreement between the TNSM and the ANP-led coalition government.

Under the six-point agreement, the TNSM renounced the use of force for achieving its goal of enforcement of Shariah, or Islamic law, in Swat and other parts of Malakand region. It pledged to respect the institutions of the state and accept the government's right to establish its writ. The TNSM also distanced itself from elements involved in attacks on security forces in Swat and elsewhere. In return, the government withdrew all pending cases against Sufi Mohammad, commuted his remaining prison term and set him free unconditionally.

Sufi Mohammad was arrested in November 2001 while returning from Afghanistan, where he had gone at the head of around 10,000 of his followers to fight alongside the Taliban against the US military and its allies in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. An unknown number of his ill-equipped fighters were killed and injured. Scores were made prisoners and many are still missing. The misadventure robbed his organisation of whatever support it had in the Swat and Malakand region. It will have to do a lot to reassure Swatis and others in Malakand region that it is capable of peacefully achieving its objectives. Earlier, in 1994, the TNSM's armed struggle for Shariah had alienated people in the area and deprived it of backing by some of its most fervent supporters.

The government of President General Pervez Musharraf banned the TNSM, along with several other militant Islamic organisations, under the Anti-Terrorism Act in 2000. However, TNSM activists secretly continued their political activities while campaigning for Sufi Mohammad's release. On his part, Sufi Mohammad refused to apply for his release on bail and agreed to suffer imprisonment in one of the toughest prisons in the province, at Dera Ismail Khan.

His son-in-law, Maulana Fazlullah, who had accompanied him to fight on the side of the Taliban in Afghanistan and was imprisoned along with him, won his freedom about three years ago and returned to his native Swat to take over the leadership of the local chapter of the TNSM. The 32-year-old cleric soon embraced militancy, raised a band of armed followers and began preaching on his illegal FM radio channel. He also started a campaign to ban music and television, oppose polio vaccination and demand segregation in schools. Sufi Mohammad expelled him from the TNSM and denounced the use of force by him and his followers in their struggle for enforcement of Shariah in Swat.

Sufi Mohammad's release meant that the coalition government in the NWFP, comprising the Awami National Party (ANP), a party championing Pashtun nationalism and secularism, and the late Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, a left-of-centre secular organisation, has decided to use the mainstream and peaceful TNSM as its partner in tackling militancy and extremism and bringing peace to the scenic Swat valley. However, it remains to be seen how much political support Sufi Mohammad and his TNSM still retain in Swat and in the rest of Malakand region following his 2001 misadventure when he preached "jihad" and motivated his followers to fight the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Sufi Mohammad will also have to work hard to take back the initiative from son-in-law Fazlullah, who has evaded capture and is still fighting the more than 20,000 heavily-armed Pakistan Army troops deployed in Swat. Fazlullah has strengthened his position by joining forces with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella organisation of all militant groups of Pakistani Taliban operating in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Bajaur, Darra Adamkhel and other tribal areas and districts of the NWFP. Baitullah Mahsud, the most powerful Taliban commander in Pakistan who is head of the TTP, would surely come to Fazlullah's help as he did earlier in case the government's reconciliation efforts failed to materialise and the low-intensity insurgency continued in Swat.

The Pakistan Army had earlier made its intentions clear when Major General Nasser Janjua, commander of the troops that began military operations against militants in Swat in November 2007, declared that Fazlullah would have to surrender to the security forces and face trial in a court of law. The same point was made by Pakistan's new prime minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani when he said peace talks would be held with only those militants who gave up arms. The US and UK also favoured dialogue with militants willing to use peaceful means of struggle.

The NWFP government had earlier constituted a six-member committee of provincial ministers to bring together politicians, clerics, intellectuals and other notables of Swat and Malakand in a jirga and establish contact with the militants for starting a dialogue to peacefully bring the Swat conflict to an end. Sufi Mohammad's release was highlighted as one of the recommendations of this ministerial committee, even though it was widely known that the caretaker government formed to hold the Feb 18 general elections had made up its mind to free him in a bid to defuse the situation in Swat. The caretakers had also finalized the draft of new laws to amend the Shariah regulations with a view to winning the support of the people of Swat.

The success or failure of the peace initiative in Swat will also determine the fate of the larger dialogue with the Baitullah Mahsud-led TTP for resolving the more dangerous conflict in the tribal areas, particularly in Waziristan. However, any attempt by the government to keep the militants like Fazlullah and other TTP elements out of the dialogue and put up conditions such as surrendering of arms by their fighters will scuttle any chances of bringing the conflict to a peaceful end.

Placing conditions for negotiating with the militants will make the government's peace initiative a non-starter. Past negotiations with militants in Waziristan didn't include any such condition. The militants are unlikely to surrender because that would mean talking to the government from a position of weakness. Giving up arms could be an outcome of the talks, but making it a condition for negotiations will make the whole peace process an exercise in futility.

The writer is executive editor of The News based in Peshawar. Email: bbc@

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