By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
On June 14, 2009, the Pakistan Army made the absurd claim that its operations had rendered the Swat Valley free of militants. Between June 14, 2009, and October 31, 2010, however, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), 1,041 persons were killed in the Valley, including 907 militants, 105 civilians and 29 Security Forces’ (SF) personnel, in a least 159 incidents. In the wider Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP, formerly known as the North West Frontier Province) province within which Swat is located, fatalities over this period totalled at least 2,985, including 1,778 militants, 962 civilians and 245 SF personnel, in 2349 incidents [these may be significant under-estimates, as information flows from regions of conflict in Pakistan are erratic and unreliable).
Some of the major incidents during this period include:
October 24, 2010: Five militants were killed in an encounter with the Security Forces (SFs) in the Chaparyal and Kharerai areas of Matta tehsil (revenue unit) in the Swat District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
October 9, 2010: Five militants belonging to the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) Swat chapter were killed in a clash with SFs at Totano Bandai in Swat District. The SFs recovered a cache of weapons. Sources said that the slain militants had entered Swat from the Dir District.
July 15, 2010: Five persons were killed in a suicide attack near a busy bus stand in Mingora, the headquarter of Swat District.
May 30, 2010: Swat Scouts killed 22 TTP militants in a six-hour battle in Mulla Khel, Rangi Kandu, Mir Garh, Drai Choti and Sumpag areas. The SFs also destroyed 12 terrorist hideouts in these areas.
May 1, 2010: Seven persons, including three TTP militants, were killed and 16 people, including seven SFs, were injured in a suicide blast and a retaliatory clash between SFs and TTP at a commercial plaza in Mingora city.
March 13 2010: At least 17 persons, including two Policemen and an Army trooper, were killed in a suicide attack at a checkpoint manned by Police and military personnel at Mingora town.
February 22, 2010: 13 persons, including three SF personnel and four women, were killed and 41 others injured when a suicide bomber hit a SFs convoy at the Nishat Chowk of Mingora.
December 3, 2009: SFs killed 13 militants during raids at two locations in the Swat.
November 15, 2009: 12 militants were killed in clashes with the SFs in Karakar and Shamozai Gharai while 14 bodies were found dumped in Charbagh’s Gulibagh area in the Swat Valley.
November 14, 2009: Troops killed 13 TTP militants in two separate clashes in Swat.
November 6, 2009: Eight militants were killed and four were arrested during search operations in the Swat District.
A total of 21 suicide attacks were recorded in KP, of which three occurred in Swat.
The Swat Valley, with an area of 5,337 square kilometres and population of 1,257,602, is an Administrative District in the KP Province of Pakistan, located 160 kilometres from the national capital, Islamabad. It is the upper valley of the Swat River, which rises in the Hindu Kush range. The capital of Swat is Saidu Sharif, but the main town in the Valley is Mingora. It was a princely State in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, until it was dissolved in 1969. The rough terrain and thick forests of Swat provide extensive safe havens for Islamist extremist terrorists.
The fighting in Swat is the first serious insurgent threat from pro-TTP forces in what are described as ‘settled areas’ of Pakistan. TTP militants established effective control of the Swat Valley in 2007. By the end of October, 2007, fighting erupted in the District, with a large TTP force, under the command of Maulana Fazlullah (who was subsequently killed on May 26, 2010), trying to impose Sharia law in the area. Around 3,000 paramilitary soldiers were sent to confront the TTP rebels and, after almost a week of heavy fighting, the battle came to a standstill with both sides suffering heavy casualties. Then, on November 1 and November 3, 220 paramilitary soldiers and Policemen surrendered or deserted after a military position on a hill-top and two Police Stations were overrun. This left the TTP in control of most of Swat.
Forces loyal to Maulana Fazlullah, including some foreign fighters, after taking control of a series of small towns and villages, began to impose their version of ‘strict Islamic law’ in November 2007. In mid-November the Army was deployed in strength, backed by helicopter gunships, to crush the uprising. By the beginning of December, the Army declared victory, claiming to have reclaimed Swat, having killed 400 pro-TTP militants and lost just 15 Pakistani soldiers and 20 civilians. Despite this ‘success’, TTP militants quickly re-entered Swat over the coming months and once again began engaging the SFs in battles that lasted throughout 2008.
On April 26, 2009, the Pakistani Army started Operation Black Thunderstorm, with the aim of retaking Buner, Lower Dir, Swat and Shangla Districts in KP from the TTP. The Operation ‘cleared’ the Lower Dir District of militants by April 28 and Buner by May 5. On May 5, operations were commenced to retake Swat and later on Shangla. On May 23, the battle for Mingora started and by May 27, the Army claimed that 70 per cent of the city had been ‘cleared’ of militants. On May 30, the Army declared that the city of Mingora had been ‘taken back’ from the TTP in what was described as a ‘significant victory’. Sporadic fighting, nevertheless, continued on the city’s outskirts.
In all, according to the military, 128 soldiers and more than 1,475 militants were killed and 317 soldiers were wounded during this phase of operations. 95 soldiers and Policemen were captured by the militants, of whom 18 were rescued, while the fate of the others remained unknown. 114 militants were arrested, including some local commanders. At least 23 of the militants killed were foreigners. Sporadic fighting throughout Swat continued up until mid-June. On June 14, the Operation was declared over, with the Army claiming it had ‘regained control’ of the region. Small pockets of TTP resistance, nevertheless, remained, and the military continued with ‘mopping up’ operations. On October 8, 2009, General Officer Commanding (GOC) Major General Ashfaq Nadeem declared that peace had been restored to “95 per cent areas” of the District. He insisted, moreover, that a majority of the militants had either been killed or arrested, or had surrendered, during the Army offensive. Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain went a step further to rule out the possibility of the TTP reorganising in Swat, claiming that the SFs had ‘dismantled their networks’ in the Valley. “The militants cannot dare reorganise. Their network has been smashed,” the Minister said. Hussain, however, justified the Operations, recalling that the Government had “accepted all demands of the terrorists” but still they continued killing innocent people of Swat. “We had no other option than to opt for military operations when the terrorists were least concerned about civilians’ lives,” he added.
The Army’s claims notwithstanding, Swat Police Chief Qazi Ghulam Farooq conceded on May 1, 2010, “Practically, it is impossible to make the Valley 100 percent secure. You have mountains, and forests that are very green and thick during this part of the year and give you the best camouflage.” However, he claimed that, “The best thing is the residents, the villagers want us to fight the militants. They let us know if they find them anywhere.” Media reports, nevertheless, indicate that people in Swat have expressed strong reservations over the role of the SFs and Police in the Valley. Locals complained that, during the 2009 operations, local peace committee members had supported the SFs but, in retaliation, they had been targeted by the militants, and the SFs failed to provide security.
As terrorist activity escalates in Swat, the Army and Police, on October 11, started a two-day joint operation against the militants in the Matta tehsil of Swat, as well as neighbouring Mardan, the Ghuando, Shamozai and Shikray Baba areas of Katlang tehsil, Sawaldher, Bakhshali and Guli Bagh, after the killing of a renowned religious scholar and Swat Islamic University Vice Chancellor, Muhammad Farooq. At least 10 TTP militants and one soldier were killed in the Operation in different parts of Mardan District. Unconfirmed reports also suggest that 800 ‘suspected terrorists’ were arrested in the Operation.
This action, however, is also little more than an eyewash. The revival of the TTP in Swat and adjacent Districts is a growing embarrassment for the Army, and underscores the continuing difficulties that Pakistan faces in establishing Government authority over areas where the military has claimed comprehensive victories over the Islamist terrorists.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management