The situation in Swat and other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa(KPK) today starkly demonstrates the inability or lack of political will of the Pakistani government and security establishment to protect its own citizens from the banned militant organization, Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP). The deteriorating security situation in Swat also highlights the weakness of the Pakistan Army-led peace process, which appears to be moving inexorably to failure. Further, it is also seen as the failure of the Pakistan Army under Army Chief Gen. Bajwa to contain the resurgence of the TTP. The TTP leadership is displaying complete intransigence on its core objectives thus reducing the possibility of negotiations succeeding. Consequently, the people of Swat have come out on the streets and are protesting against rising militancy in the Swat valley. Resurgence of the TTP is a direct fallout of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
The recent appearance of TTP in the Swat valley brings back memories of the bloody period in the early 2000s. According to latest figures, there have been six incidents this year alone in which 12 persons, including seven civilians and five terrorists, have been killed. Global Strat View, a US based virtual think-tank has issued (30 October 2022) an analysis which claims that the Pakistani Army had allowed the return of some TTP militants in the Swat Valley as a part of its ongoing negotiations with the terrorist outfit. However, local leaders and human rights activists see the TTP’s resurgence in KPK as a devious ploy to create disturbances in the Pashtun areas of Pakistan.
Pertinently, these developments in Swat show the failure of the current Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa in ensuring peace in KPK. Global Strat News says this is a consequence of the Afghan strategy followed by the Pakistan Army, because of which the Afghan Taliban is today no longer willing to follow orders from Rawalpindi. Complications have also arisen due to the failure of the TTP-Pakistan Army negotiations after the assassinations of key TTP leaders. This has confirmed fears in the Pashtun tribal areas that the military and civilian leadership are compromising peace in the region. In addition, Pakistan’s ongoing political and economic crises have side-lined the Swat issue. For the Army, rising militancy could be a ploy to further consolidate its writ in the Pashtun areas.
TTP militants were first spotted along the Swat-Dir border (August 2022) as the Kabul peace talks between the terror organization and Pakistani government got underway. A UN report (February 2022) estimates that about 3,000 to 4,000 TTP fighters had regrouped in Afghanistan, under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud. Talks had been held (between Pak Army and TTP) regarding the fighters’ resettlement in Pakistan to reunite with their families under assurances of reintegrating peacefully into local communities. This of course, never happened.
Earlier, a 12 August 2022 report had noted that TTP militants had established a check-post at Balasoor Top, besides roaming about freely in other areas of the Matta tehsil of Swat. Residents claimed TTP militants were not only on Balasoor Top but were also present in large numbers in the mountainous areas of Matta tehsil, including Bar Shor, Koz Shor, Namal, Gat Peuchar and other areas. Importantly, Geo News correspondent in Swat, Mehboob Ali, claimed that at least 200-250 TTP militants were in the area. The TTP-claimed attack (7 August 2022) on a Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) MPA in Lower Dir and the abduction of an Army man and police official in Swat fuelled fears of the militants staging a comeback. Regular extortion calls further stoked fear among citizens. Aimal Wali Khan, President Awami National Party’s KP wing, recently claimed that at least three PTI ministers, the provincial Chief Minister and former speaker of National Assembly, Asad Qaiser were paying extortion money to the TTP and its affiliates.
Interestingly, on 14 August 2022, Pakistan military’s media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), issued a statement, admitting that the presence of a “small number of armed men on a few mountain-tops between Swat and Dir has been observed”, located far away from populated areas. However, the military had earlier dismissed what it termed a “misperception about alleged presence of a large number of proscribed organisation TTP’s armed members in Swat Valley”. The Army was clearly in damage control mode!
Most recently (October 2022), the TTP targeted a school van in Swat’s Charbagh tehsil, killing the driver and injuring two students. The incident sparked protests in the area, one of which lasted for over forty hours. Locals blamed the banned TTP for the attack, but the militant group, has denied responsibility. At the heart of the anti-militant and anti-army protests in Swat is the PashtunTahafuz Movement (PTM), an anti-war group. The PTM has gained considerable strength in recent years, drawing tens of thousands of people to its protest rallies. Its supporters are critical of both the Taliban and the Pakistani military, which they say have ravaged Pashtun areas in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The PTM maintains that Pakistani authorities backed TTP militants in the area to destabilize former elected governments in Afghanistan.
In September 2022, suspected militants fired on a police party in the valley, fuelling speculation that the TTP, which aims to set up an Islamist state in Pakistan, is regaining strength in the area. Analysts say the TTP feels emboldened by the Afghan Taliban’s return to power in Kabul in 2021. As a part of its security approach in north-western tribal regions of Pakistan, the military establishment has long followed a policy of ‘divide and rule’ to not allow Pashtun unity in the region. This policy continues to function as nobody wants a united Pashtun force in KPK.
What lies ahead for Swat? Past experience suggests that unless security operations are undertaken by the Pakistan Army things will not improve. Some reports suggest that the new Army Chief who takes over from Gen. Bajwa may call for an anti-TTP operation in the Swat valley on the lines of Operation Rah-e-Rast (2009). According to Global Strat News military operations at this juncture would serve several purposes. First, it will consolidate the Pakistan Army’s influence in the region and work as an ‘image-building’ exercise. Second, it will send a signal to the Afghan Taliban not to transgress the Army’s redlines. Finally, it could provide a diversion from the otherwise dismal domestic condition that Pakistan finds itself in! At the end of the day, it is the people of Swat who are suffering, caught between a rock and a hard place. No amount of justification can take away the fact that the Pakistan Army has failed to control the resurgence of TTP in the region. This must remain one of the unfinished legacies of Gen. Qamar Bajwa, as he prepares to demit office!