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Pakistani Military Hands Over Former Taliban Stronghold To Civilian Control

FILE: A protests in Swat to protest against the grave human rights abuses in the region.
FILE: A protests in Swat to protest against the grave human rights abuses in the region.

The army has formally handed over a former Taliban stronghold to police and civilian administrative control in the northwestern Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

This week’s transfer of authority comes 11 years after the army first moved into the scenic Swat Valley in 2007 to take on a Taliban rebellion.

But it remains unclear how much influence Pakistan’s powerful military will wield over the region, once a tourist haven but where thousands have been killed and millions displaced in terrorist attacks and military operations.

Officials are upbeat about restoring peace to the predominantly Pashtun-populated Swat Valley, where a former chairlift operator used fiery sermons over an illegal FM station to provoke a Taliban insurgency that sent alarm bells ringing in Islamabad and the West.

“The people of Swat together with army, police, and security agencies rendered tremendous sacrifices and proved they cannot be defeated by terrorism,” Mahmood Khan, the chief minister or most senior elected civilian official in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told a military ceremony marking the handover.

Khan said the Pakistani Army achieved a remarkable feat in defeating terrorism.

“The people of Swat are grateful. The Pakistani Army not only forced the militants to flee but it contributed enormously to the welfare and development of Swat,” he said. “We have achieved complete peace in Swat, and our civilian institutions are completely ready to protect Swat.”

To beef up security in the alpine region, the government has increased its police presence. Syed Ashfaq Anwar, head of police in Swat, says they are now ready to face all security challenges.

“We are not only determined to uphold peace in the region but will try to prevent any future unrest,” he told Radio Mashaal.

The Taliban emerged in Swat in 2005, when Mullah Fazlullah used his firebrand sermons on an illegal FM radio station to call for jihad. By 2007, he had forged an alliance with powerful Taliban factions in the nearby Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to form the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan. This made his organization part of the wider militant movement fighting against the Pakistani military.

By 2009, Fazlullah had established a parallel authority in Swat, where his supporters frequently killed opponents and imposed harsh punishments in the name of imposing the Islamic law, Shari'a.

His atrocities provoked public anger. After botched peace agreements and small-scale military operations, the civilian governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Islamabad asked the military to go after the militants in full force.

The Rah-e Rast offensive that began in May 2009 temporarily displaced more than 2 million Swat residents but forced Fazlullah and his supporters to flee into neighboring Afghanistan, where he was killed in a U.S. drone strike in June.

Mukhtiar Khan Yousafzai, a leader of the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, campaigned for years to compel the Pakistani Army to hand back Swat’s control to civilian authorities.

“The army was here for a long time. If they’d stayed any longer, it would have been even more controversial,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We are grateful that the army fulfilled its responsibilities here by facilitating the return of peace -- something our people demanded.”

The military and civilian authorities, however, have refrained from commenting on the internment centers and covert jails where the army reportedly imprisons suspected militants.

Last month, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s government granted some land to the army to build a permanent military garrison to fend off future security threats.

But there is some opposition to the move in Swat.

Yousafzai says that Swat residents already have little inhabitable land. A large part of Swat’s more than 5,000 square kilometers is covered by forests, glaciers, snowy peaks, whitewater rivers, and lakes.

Yousafzai says the army should build a garrison in neighboring Malakand district, which is strategically located as a gateway to Swat and the neighboring districts of Dir, Shangla, Buner, and Chitral.

“We have very little arable land. A garrison in Swat will cause a grave loss to Swat’s economy and culture,” he said.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Niaz Ahmad Khan's reporting from Swat, Pakistan.