Defeating the Taleban?

No patchwork scheme, and all our recent schemes, blockades, allowances etc. are mere patchwork, will settle the Waziristan problem. Not until the military steam roller has passed over the country from end to end will there be peace. But I do not want to be the person to start the machine.

(Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India 1898 – 1905)1

By the summer of 2008 things were therefore looking fairly bad in the Pathan areas. It was not of course as bad as the Western media portrayed it – I had been warned before travelling to Peshawar that the city was ‘under siege’ and close to falling, but in fact I spent a month based in the city and never felt under direct personal threat.

Nonetheless, the sense of crisis was real. It was to be felt above all in the business community, many of whose members were making plans to leave if it became necessary. For example, smaller businessmen who would never have dreamed of this in the past were beginning to sell property to finance their sons’ education in Britain or America, so as to lay the basis for the whole family to move later. Even a tough ex-brigadier of my acquaintance admitted to me later that he had sold some of his land and bought property in Karachi instead, ‘just in case’.

Big businessmen were also seriously worried. When I visited Noman Wazir, CEO of Frontier Foundries, the biggest steel-mill in the NWFP, he broke off in the middle of our interview to give orders to his chief of staff, a retired military officer, about buying Kalashnikovs. ‘We have to get arms. Talk to the SSP [Senior Superintendent of Police]. Use any kind of political pressure to get the licences. You know what to do.’

Mr Wazir’s factory is situated on the Jamrud Industrial Estate in Hayatabad, the western suburb of Peshawar on the very edge of the Khyber Tribal Agency. Naturally, therefore, of all the areas of Peshawar Hayatabad is the most lawless and the most penetrated by the Taleban. Beside the main road I saw a sign – a common one in Peshawar these days: ‘My husband Shahir Ishaq has been kidnapped for three months and the government has done nothing.’

I asked Mr Wazir if he had given up completely on the police. ‘No, not completely,’ he replied.

But they desperately need help. Look, there are about 22,000 police in the NWFP, with about 8,000 modern weapons for all of them, very few vehicles, very poor communications and terrible pay. So it’s hardly surprising they are not doing well. Even if the government had much more money, it would take years to improve them. So the private sector has to look after itself.

When I returned to Peshawar almost a year later, in July 2009, the mood had improved considerably. This was odd in a way, because terrorism in the city had actually got much worse. The Pearl Continental Hotel had been wrecked by a car bomb despite its heavy security, suicide bombings were growing in scale and becoming more indiscriminate, and the number of kidnappings and murders had risen to the point where I was told even by more resilient friends that to stay in my usual guest-house would be extremely dangerous (so I stayed most gratefully at the Frontier Constabulary Mess instead). Since then, bombs on an unprecedented scale have caused hundreds of casualties. The terrorists have also become far more indiscriminate, planting bombs in bazaars and outside hospitals, rather than, as before, concentrating on state and military targets.

The difference was not the level of violence, but the end of the sense of helpless drift that had gripped the city during my visit in 2008: the feeling that the army and the government (state and provincial) were more and more losing the initiative to the Taleban, and had no plan at all for getting it back. In fact, a determined counter-offensive had already begun in the Bajaur Agency to the north of Peshawar, but it was not clear if it would continue or would end in negotiations like so many military offensives before it. Above all, the growing Taleban hold on the district of Swat seemed to herald a move of the rebels out from FATA (which after all had never been under real state authority) and into the ‘settled areas’ of the NWFP.

In July and August 2009, by contrast, despite the insecurity and violence, there was a general feeling that the military and the authorities had finally got a grip on the situation and demonstrated that they were determined to fight, and that, whatever happened, the Taleban would not be allowed to seize control of Peshawar and its valley. Business confidence had returned, and there was less talk of people leaving. For this, a range of new state policies and actions was responsible – but above all, it was due to the military counter-offensive in Swat in the late spring and summer of 2009.

The counter-offensive against the Taleban indeed provides something of a classic example of the Pakistani response to really serious threats: the eventual selection, from the hordes of more or less useless Pakistani public servants, of a small number of brave and able men; the concentration, from Pakistan’s heaps of squandered public finances, of enough money to support a major operation; the belated unity of the political, economic, administrative and military elites in the face of a common existential danger; the brutal but in the end brutally effective manner in which the struggle has been conducted; the way in which most of the operation has been conducted outside the constitution, the law and the regular administrative and political structures; and the central role of the army not just in the military operation but every other area.

Unity among the elites was essential, because the near-paralysis of the summer of 2008 in the Pathan areas affected every area of the state, and was largely due to the bitter divisions between the political parties, the military and the civil service. For this various factors were responsible: the slow death of the Musharraf presidency (he resigned on 18 August 2008) and the struggle over the succession, which dominated the attention of the political party leaderships and governments; the tradition of bitter distrust between the military and the ruling parties in both Islamabad and Peshawar; and the awareness of everyone concerned that tough military operations against the Taleban were opposed by the majority of the population, especially in the Pathan areas.


The following fact has been widely ignored in the West, probably because it raises a very uncomfortable issue: namely, that Western governments and the Western media believe that they want to promote democracy in Pakistan, but that they have pressed upon Pakistani governments a co-operation with the West in the ‘war on terror’ which most Pakistani voters detest. Pakistani politicians, however – who need those voters’ votes – obviously could not be indifferent to this dilemma, or, at least, not until the threat from the Taleban to themselves became so grave and so obvious that they felt that they had no choice but to fight back. For a long time, therefore, all the main actors on the Pakistani political stage, including Musharraf, the military, the intelligence agencies and the political parties, tried to avoid tough action against the Pakistani Taleban, while at the same time not breaking with the United States. Each at the same time tried to put the blame on the others for the failure to confront the Taleban.

For reasons that have already been explained, these feelings were especially strong among the Pathans, and are closely related to their opinions of the Afghan Taleban struggle. I thought that I might find some more hopeful signs at Peshawar University, which is both a centre of ANP and PPP support, and the site of whatever progressive feeling exists among Pathan youth in the province. In any case, it is always nice to visit Peshawar University. Its green and beautiful grounds are like a drop of perfume squeezed out as if by God’s hand from the hard and gritty fabric of Peshawar. They remind one why, for all the great monotheistic religions that emerged from the arid Middle East, paradise is a garden.

Next door is the Islamia College, from which the university originally grew, a magnificent complex of British buildings in neo-Mughal style, set in even more beautiful gardens under the shade of giant chenars (oriental plane trees). The whole represents a successful attempt by the British to blend Oxford or Cambridge with the lost glories of Peshawar before the Sikh conquest, glories still lamented by Peshawaris. A successful attempt architecturally, that is – not, alas, intellectually. I visited the university and Islamia College twice, in May 2007 and August 2008, and if things did not seem to have got much worse between those two dates as far as student and faculty opinion was concerned, that was only because they were so bad already.

In May of 2007, thanks to the kind invitation of Professor Taqi Bangash, I spoke with thirty-one history students at the university. Just over half were girls. Eight of them wore the niqab, which half veils the face up to the nose, a bit like a bandit’s mask, three were in full burqas, and four wore headscarves but with faces uncovered. Only one went wholly unveiled, in sharp contrast to old photographs from the 1960s and 1970s I saw in the department, where many of the girls were unveiled.

Despite repeated invitations from me, the women on this occasion played very little part in the conversation. One exquisitely beautiful girl with perfectly chiselled features in a bright pink shelwar kameez and headscarf sat throughout in perfect stillness and silence, so like a rose in every way that I was sorely tempted to giggle. The only voluble and intelligent exception was a visiting student from Iran – another small sign that as far as women’s rights and participation are concerned, the West has not understood the nature of the balance between Iran and the ‘pro-Western’ states of the region.

There were considerable differences among the students concerning the level of their sympathy for the Afghan Taleban and their Pakistani allies; but on two things there was unanimity. I asked them the following: ‘If there are free and fair elections and a democratic government is elected; and if this government agrees with Washington to launch a military operation against the Taleban in FATA, would you support or oppose this?’ The response was, by a show of hands: oppose, twentynine; support, nil. By the same token, all of them supported peace deals between the Pakistani government and the militants; and all said that if the US sent troops into FATA, the Pakistani army should fight them. This group of students included Jamaat and JUI supporters, but also PPP and ANP activists.

There was unanimity too in the loud burst of applause which greeted the words of one of the Islamist students, Gul Ahmed Gul, a handsome young man with a neatly clipped beard, more like an old school left-wing student activist:

When you go back to Washington, please tell the Americans to leave Afghanistan and let us sort out our own problems, because, as long as they are there, people will fight against them. The Americans must pay more attention to what local people want. We do not want more Americans to die, but we also do not agree to Americans coming to this part of the world to kill our fellow Muslims, whatever American reasons for this may be.

With the obvious exception of the Iranian girl, all of the students agreed that ‘We and the Afghans are one people.’

Perhaps because the students spent most of the time asking me questions rather than giving their own views, the conversation on that occasion proceeded along more or less rational lines. In August 2008 I revisited the university and the Islamia College to meet with both students and staff, and I’m afraid that my notebook contains a suggestion of mine for their joint motto: ‘Unity in Idiocy’. This was despite the fact that the Islamia College, as its name suggests, is a hotbed of Jamaat and JUI support, while the Area Studies Centre of the university, where I spoke in the morning, is a leading intellectual centre of the ANP.

The previous day, an acquaintance of mine, the chief political officer at the US Consulate in Peshawar, had been ambushed by Taleban gunmen on the same street as my guest-house in University Town, and saved by her armoured limousine. I can’t say that my patience during the discussions at the Centre was improved by hearing in the opening remarks by the Centre’s head, Professor Azmat Hayat Khan, that, ‘Of course, the Americans carried out that attack themselves so as to give themselves an excuse to invade Pakistan.’ To approving murmurs from his colleagues, he added:

Four thousand American mercenaries are operating in FATA. They are the ones carrying out the ruthless killings there, not the Taleban. We have proof of this. Four days ago, eighteen bodies of Americans were brought to the morgue in Peshawar. We know that they are not Taleban or Muslim because they are not circumcised. Russians, Chinese, Iranians are all supporting the Taleban against us, for their own reasons. As for Britain and the US, Professor Lawrence Freedman predicted that it is their policy to cause anarchy in Pakistan so as to achieve their goals.2

It was easy to check on this, since Sir Lawrence happens to be the vice-principal of my college in London. There was of course no truth in it – but then, there was no truth in the morgue story either. As to the American mercenaries, if Peshawari opinion is to be believed, FATA must be getting pretty crowded, since people there think that thousands of Indian Sikhs and Israeli agents are also there pretending to be Taleban, alongside the Russians, Chinese and Iranians. I also heard stories to the effect that the entire battle between the Pakistani military and the Taleban was faked and that all terrorist attacks were in fact being carried out by the ISI – and the people who told me this included not just uneducated people on the street but a lawyer and member of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission!

In fact, to my considerable chagrin as a British subject, the only major country not accused in my presence of sending its troops to pretend to be Taleban was Britain. I’d hoped that this was the result of Pathan hospitality and unwillingness to offend a guest, but I’m sorry to say that when I asked a Pathan friend about this he replied that ‘I’m afraid that it’s really that people here now see America and Britain as the same thing.’

That afternoon, I got another dose of conspiracy theory from someone at the other end of the political spectrum, Syed Zahir Shah, Professor of Botany at the Islamia College, a charming old man with a silken white beard, who his students told me is a member of the Jamaat party. To the same murmur of approval from colleagues as at the Area Studies Centre, he told me:

The Pakistani Taleban were created by the big powers, the US, Russia, Israel and India, so as to destroy Pakistan. It is not Pakistanis who are carrying out these terrorist attacks. It was the same with Benazir Bhutto. No Pakistani or Muslim killed her. She was killed because she was a strong political leader, and India, Israel and other foreign forces don’t want Pakistan to be stable.

Like many other people in Peshawar he produced for me ‘proof’ of a secret plan by the Bush administration to partition Pakistan. This turned out to be a map published by Ralph Peters, a retired US lt-colonel who writes a column for the New York Post, a tabloid, who has held no official position in any US administration. When I pointed out to the professor that the Pakistani Taleban had in fact taken public responsibility for the terrorist attack on the Pakistani munitions factory at Wah the previous week, which had killed almost 100 ordinary Pakistani workers, he changed tack and declared: ‘Yes, but they have their reasons. Their women and children have been killed by Pakistani bombs dropped on the orders of America.’

If these were the views and the intellectual standards of professors from both the secular and the Islamist parties, then it is hardly surprising that much of the general public also had much sympathy for the Taleban and none at all for the US, and that the entire public discourse in the NWFP is so sodden with ludicrous conspiracy theories as often to be barely minimally rational.

In part these conspiracy theories are the work of the army itself, which (so I have been told by senior officers in private) has been spreading the line about India’s role in an effort to discredit the Pakistani Taleban. This, however, seems to have backfired badly, in that so many people can now blame Taleban terrorism on ‘foreign hands’, and thereby continue to believe in the ‘good’ Taleban which does not do such things. Echoing similar views from a great many ordinary people, the correspondent for the Nation newspaper in Faisalabad, Ahmed Jamal Nizami, told me in January 2009:

All the suicide bombings in Pakistan are the result of operations in which Pakistani or US forces kill women and children; and some of them like the Marriott were carried out by RAW [the Indian government’s Research and Analysis Wing – i.e. the Indian intelligence service]. Pakistani agencies have proof that the truck came from the Indian embassy.3

This sort of attitude was very widespread among Pakistani journalists with whom I talked in 2008 – 9, and was obviously reflected or at least hinted at in their reports and analyses – with disastrous results for the willingness of their audiences to support military action against the Taleban. This explains why the army’s action after April 2009 in getting a grip on the Pakistani media was so important to the struggle against the Pakistani Taleban.


Responding to the views of its own followers, and of the Pathan and indeed Pakistani electorate in general, the ANP therefore stood in the elections of February 2008 on a platform of negotiating peace with the Taleban. This corresponded to the ANP’s Pathan nationalism, and horror at the thought of conducting what would amount to a Pathan civil war within Pakistan. The ANP was also influenced by its traditional hostility to both the United States and the Pakistani army, and its unwillingness to launch such a war in alliance with these forces.

These attitudes were so deeply rooted that they persisted for more than a year after ANP politicians in Swat and elsewhere began to be killed by the Taleban in large numbers. From their election to the NWFP government in February 2008 to the counter-offensive in Swat in May 2009 the ANP’s policy towards the Taleban therefore presented a picture of utter confusion, of calling for tougher military action while bitterly condemning every action that caused civilian casualties, and of attacking the military for covert links to the Taleban while continuing to pursue talks with the Taleban themselves. In the end, for political and cultural reasons that I will describe, this approach turned out much better than might have been expected; but in the summer of 2008 it contributed greatly to the mood of paralysis and pessimism gripping Peshawar.

This was very apparent from a debate on the conflict in Swat on 19 August 2008 in the Provincial Assembly in Peshawar that I attended. The building itself is splendid but also somewhat confusing, as so often in the former colonial territories of the Muslim world: gleaming white neo-classical columns support an ornate neo-Mughal roof covered with Urdu calligraphy. Somewhat to my alarm, my British passport and white face led to my car being waved through the security checkpoint with no search for explosives or weapons.

Speaker after speaker, from government and opposition alike, rose to lament the situation in Swat. The only things that almost all agreed on were that the Americans should withdraw from Afghanistan; that within Pakistan, the central government and above all the army were to blame, either for causing collateral damage, or for secretly helping the Taleban, or both; and that the Pakistani justice system needed radical reform, including through the extension of the Shariah.

Abdul Akbar Khan, the leader of the PPP in the assembly, took the strongest anti-military line of all – though he was the man who in theory should have been representing the central government, which had declared its desire for the closest co-operation with the military. In fact, though, as I sensed from Abdul Akbar, and as I found openly in talking to other PPP deputies, as well as PPP activists on the street, their loathing of Zardari was such that they no longer really saw themselves as linked to the central government, and they certainly tried to play this link down in private.

Abdul Akbar even hinted that it was the army itself, and not the Taleban, who were destroying girls’ schools in Swat (despite the fact that the Taleban had publicly taken responsibility, and in a number of cases had expelled the pupils and seized the schools as headquarters instead of destroying them). This was a charge which an ANP leader had made explicitly to me in private the previous week. ‘Why are the schools being destroyed not during the day, but in the night when there is a curfew and only the military can move freely?’ he had asked. ‘Isn’t the answer obvious?’

Perhaps the most striking example of the extremely complex ANP attitude to the Taleban and the army came in an interview I had in January 2009 with Bushra Gohar, an ANP member of the national parliament in Islamabad and a distinguished Pakistani feminist. Here, if anywhere, I expected to find a really tough approach to dealing with the Taleban, given their own savage hatred of everything that she represented.

Ms Gohar is indeed a striking individual, with an intelligent, humorous face, short iron-grey hair and a general style that reminded me somewhat of my younger sister, a barrister in London. Burbles and hoots from a small relative in the background were a cheerful descant to our rather grim discussion. For the first half hour we spoke about women’s issues, and she displayed a most impressive mixture of intelligence, commitment and pragmatism.

Then we got on to the Taleban, and for me at least the rationality of her views disintegrated. She declared that ‘we can’t talk to the Taleban unless they lay down their arms’, but on the question of how to make them do that, it seemed that the Pakistani army should do everything and nothing. She blamed the military for not attacking the Taleban, but also for using too much violence and killing civilians. She declared that the Pakistani army should act to shut the Afghan Taleban training camps in Waziristan, but also that she was firmly opposed to military operations in Waziristan. When I asked her how then the camps could be shut, she replied that ‘Everyone knows that they are run by the ISI. The ISI has only to give the order, and the camps will be shut.’4


Given attitudes like these in the NWFP government, it was not surprising that morale in the NWFP police in the summer of 2008 had reached dangerously low levels. As one of the force’s commanders admitted:

We have largely lost the institutional memory that we used to have, and we have very little good intelligence coming in ... Real policing, going out and finding out what is happening, has become virtually non-existent. We are policing by the seat of our pants, not going about it in an organized and professional manner, but just reacting to what happens.

I interviewed some of the same junior police officers in both August 2008 and July 2009, and the change in their mood was a useful indicator of how things in general had changed in the city over the intervening year. In August 2008 I spoke to two assistant sub-inspectors of police (ASIs) from Hayatabad, the western suburb of Peshawar, about the situation in what the London police would call their ‘manor’. Both men were in their early twenties: Asif with a round, bearded face like a cheerful pirate, Mushtaq clean-shaven, darker and more formidable-looking. ‘Security here is getting worse day by day,’ Mushtaq said. ‘The Taleban drive by our police station in pick-up trucks, showing off their Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades, and we are not allowed to do anything about it. Our orders are not to arrest them, to shoot only if they shoot at us first. It’s terrible for our prestige!’

To which Asif replied urgently, ‘Yes, but, Mushtaq, they are so much better armed than we are! If we attacked them, you know what would happen. Even if we won that fight, they would come back at night and destroy our station. Much better to ignore them.’ Humiliating, no doubt, but also without doubt entirely correct. As a righteous Westerner I should have supported Mushtaq; actually my human sympathies were all with Asif.

But when I met Asif again in July 2009, his mood had improved considerably.

A year ago, things were getting worse day by day, but now they are a bit better. For example, we have orders to open fire on the Taleban on sight. This order came after the military operation started in Swat. There was a wave of shootings and bombings in response, but still it is better that we began to fight ... The public mood has also changed. In the past, when we asked people for information about the Taleban they would shut their doors. Now, when the Taleban come to an area we are quickly informed about them ... Our pay has also increased, though not nearly enough. With bonuses, an ASI now gets Rs14,000 a month and a constable Rs9,000 [compared to a mere Rs6,000 in 2008]. It is not nearly enough for the risks we run, but better than it was. Though it is still not as much as the Taleban pay their fighters – they get Rs12,000 – 15,000.

What Asif told me reflected what a top police officer in Peshawar had told me eleven months earlier about what the police needed to do:

We have to reoccupy the land, start policing places on the ground and delivering security to the people. The US has given us two computers, but that doesn’t help much and nor do Western police advisers – what the hell do they know about the realities of this society? Whenever you give us something we just come up with highfalutin’ phrases which satisfy you, and you have no idea whether anything has really changed. This isn’t what is necessary. What’s necessary is that the IG [Inspector-General – head of the provincial police] and other senior officers should pick up guns and go out themselves on operations. A constable on Rs7,000 a month won’t risk his life if his officers are not there with him.

I mentioned the plaques to fallen British police officers in the cathedral. ‘Exactly,’ he replied. As so often when meeting with senior policemen in Pakistan and India, a slightly uneasy, even uncanny feeling came over me at the contrast between this highly intelligent, courteous and candid figure and the reputation of the force to which he belongs.

In this case, the uncanny feeling was increased by the fact that the officer with whom I was speaking bore a quite remarkable resemblance to the late David Niven in middle age: aquiline, humorous features, balding head, clipped moustache and equally clipped accent. In fact, being rather light-headed from running around in the heat of a Peshawar August, there were moments during the interview when I imagined that I actually was watching David Niven playing a police officer of the British Raj; and, for that matter, if such an officer had been suddenly reincarnated and joined in our conversation, I do not suppose that he and his Pakistani successor would have found much to disagree about.

This officer was a leading proponent of the creation of special police brigades to hold territory against the Taleban after the army has cleared it. These would be paid at higher rates than the rest of the police (whose pay should also be raised radically) and equipped to the same level as the Rangers and other paramilitary units under the army. He said that the creation of such brigades would improve morale and reduce what he admitted was a really serious problem – the leaking of information to the Taleban by police sympathizers. ‘Only a few really support the Taleban ideology, but a great many share the view of the population that this is not Pakistan’s war.’

I was reminded of what a senior policeman in Karachi had told me a few years before: that when he received orders to carry out an operation to catch Islamist terrorists, he made the plans with only two trusted colleagues. ‘All the rest get the orders when they are already in the jeeps and close to the destination – otherwise, every operation we planned would be blown in advance.’

By July 2009, the Inspector-General of Police in the NWFP, Malik Naveed Khan, said that 2,500 elite police had been trained, and had contributed to a great improvement in the situation. The police were also training and equipping special community police to defend their areas against the Taleban – ‘not like lashkars, because these are chosen, armed and controlled by us, so there is no risk of them changing sides or becoming dacoits’. He said that, thanks to all this, the increase in pay and the sense of new determination from the top, police morale had improved enormously over the previous few months. Above all, though, he said, the change in mood was due to the Swat operation, and the transformation of civil – military relations which it reflected.

As of the summer of 2008 these had been as bad as could well be imagined. The politicians’ views of the army have already been described. A retired colonel of my acquaintance exploded in response:

Those bastards! If we are supporting the militants in secret, how come more than 1,500 of us have been killed fighting them? It is the politicians who are running scared and doing deals with the militants. They just don’t know who they are more scared of, Washington or the Taleban. So they run to Washington and whine and grovel, and then they come back and order us to fight harder. Then when we do and people are killed, they get scared of their voters and put all the blame on us. They declare a truce and start peace negotiations again with the Taleban, and all the gains we have made at God knows what cost in lives go up in smoke. For months now, Kayani [General Ashfaq Kayani, chief of the army staff in succession to Musharraf] has been asking for clear political support for military operations and from all the ANP and most of the PPP has got nothing but shuffling excuses. Are you surprised we have military coups in this country?

A senior serving officer speaking in Peshawar in August 2008 was more measured:

We have never received clear political backing for military operations against the Taleban because no one is willing to take responsibility for civilian deaths and displacement. After all, it is not easy for any government to take responsibility for creating hundreds of thousands of refugees among its own people. But I must say that this was also true of Musharraf, not just of the civilian politicians who have taken over. That is also why we need special anti-terrorism forces which don’t cause so much collateral damage as the army, because we are trained for full-scale war and don’t really know how to do things any other way, though of course we try to keep civilian casualties as low as possible.

Another problem to which the general drew attention was the unreliability of the Frontier Corps, the locally recruited paramilitary police, or khassadars, and the Frontier Constabulary, who are supposed to patrol the line between FATA and the NWFP.

The Frontier Corps men are linked to local tribal society. That is why they are essential, because they know what is happening, so provide vital intelligence. Also, using non-Pashtun troops is very unpopular, as we found in 2004. But the problem is that they hate killing their own people, above all when many people say that this is for the sake of America. If enough of them are killed by the militants, they will often fight back; but they have been fighting for five years now and are very tired and becoming demoralized. As for the khassadars and the Constabulary, they are now useless. They just sit in their posts and do nothing.

This tension between local knowledge and local loyalty is an old one. The British, who created the units out of which the Frontier Corps was formed, fully recognized the desirability of using local troops whenever possible, and most of the troops stationed in the region were in fact locally recruited. This also meant that the British faced repeated mutinies and desertions whenever really serious trouble flared with the local tribes, and often had to disband their Pathan units.5 Similarly, since 2004, the Frontier Corps has seen repeated incidents of units refusing to fight or even deserting en masse to the Taleban. This reflected not just Pathan affinities but also a history of the Frontier Corps being underfunded and poorly equipped compared to the regular army (and not included in the benefits of the Fauji Foundation). By 2010 this was beginning to change, but, like the NWFP police, the FC had still received astonishingly limited help from the US – even in the area of effective modern body armour.


Faithful to its electoral promise of making peace with the Taleban, and responding to the will of its electorate, in February 2009 the ANP government of the NWFP negotiated a settlement with the Taleban of Swat based on the adoption by the national government of the Nizam-e-Adl (‘System of Justice’) regulation for Swat and the adjoining districts of the Malakand administrative division. This stipulated the exclusive rule of Islamic justice in Swat District, as well as an amnesty for all Taleban fighters there – in effect conceding Taleban control of much of the district. In return, the Taleban were to cease attacks on the army, police and local population.

According to the agreement, they were also supposed to lay down their arms, though no one seriously expected this to happen. On the contrary, there was a widespread expectation that the Taleban would use Swat as a training ground for the jihad in Afghanistan. On 13 April, the agreement was passed into law by the National Assembly in Islamabad, and signed by President Zardari. To judge by media reports and my own interviews, it enjoyed the support of the overwhelming majority of Pakistanis, the Mohajirs of Karachi being the only large-scale exception.

As will be seen, on paper at least the Nizam-e-Adl agreement was much less unprecedented, radical and extensive than appeared at first sight. The local Taleban certainly saw it that way, pointing out that it only covered justice, whereas a true Islamic system covers all aspects of life, including government, politics and economics. Responding to the will of the electorate, all the parties in the National Assembly except for the MQM voted for the agreement. However, it elicited immense criticism in the Western media and among Pakistani liberals, who saw it as a catastrophic defeat for the Pakistani state, as the de facto surrender of control over Swat to the Taleban, and even as part of an inexorable march of the Taleban that could take them to power in Islamabad, just as the Taleban in Afghanistan had swept from province to province in the 1990s.

In fact, however, the Nizam-e-Adl agreement proved to be the start of what appears to be an important turning point in the Pakistani state’s struggle with the Taleban – not the beginning of the end, but at least the end of the beginning, as Churchill said. Oddly enough, this was because the Taleban shared the liberals’ and the Western media’s assessment of the extent of the government defeat; and because both the Taleban and the West ignored the critical role of Pakistani and Pathan public opinion in the shaping of events and of policy.

On that score, two Pathans who played critical roles in the fight against the Taleban said very similar things to me in August 2008. One was Afrassiab Khattak, the most famous ANP intellectual and chief adviser to the ANP chief minister. The other was Lt-General Masoud Aslam, officer commanding XI Corps in Peshawar in 2008 – 9 and therefore in effect commander of the army’s fight against the Taleban in FATA and Swat.

At that point, Dr Khattak was ferociously critical of the military’s performance, and General Aslam for his part, though more discreetly, criticized the politicians for their failure to ‘take ownership’ of the fight against the Taleban. Both however emphasized the vital importance in Pathan culture of being seen to try sincerely to negotiate a peace settlement before resorting to arms – if you wanted to have public opinion on your side in the battle. General Aslam had served in Waziristan in 2004 – 5 and had this to say about dealing with the Taleban:

The problem is this damned pashtunwali, which the people follow, and everyone who wants to operate effectively here has to respect. Most of the ANP are deeply influenced by it, progressives though they say they are. The pashtunwali includes this tradition that if people come asking for peace, you have to talk to them whatever has happened before. So then a jirga is held. And they talk. You know how they talk. They talk not just all day and all night, but all week and all month. And even if the army has started in a position of strength, with time your position gets weaker and your prestige goes down. Your men are sniped at, your vehicles are burned. And the morale of your men goes down, because they are just sitting there being shot at and not allowed to do anything in response. Meanwhile the militants say, ‘Oh, it wasn’t us, we will try to catch the miscreants, who knows who they are, maybe the ISI is responsible.’ In Waziristan in 2005 the talks went on for three months, and by the end of it we were in a much weaker position than when we started ...

It’s true that you do have to be seen to talk genuinely and honestly before you strike really hard. Many of our own men are Pashtuns and they expect this. It is essential to put the militants in the wrong, to convince ordinary people that it is the other side which is breaking the peace. So the ANP government is right to negotiate. But to negotiate from a position of weakness is a disastrous mistake. The tribesmen respect nang [honour] but nang is based on nom [name, prestige]. And that means showing that you can use force: use it early, use it hard, but use it discriminately. That is why burning the houses of miscreants is a good old Pashtun tradition. This is how the religious leaders enforced their authority. It is not something that you wicked Brits thought up. The tribesmen see this, and say to themselves, ‘Ah, they know who did what. I had better be careful.’6

From the point of view of Pathan culture and public opinion, the Nizam-e-Adl agreement, so much criticized at the time, contributed enormously to the reversal in the Taleban’s fortunes – but only because the Taleban also misinterpreted it to mean that they were winning and the army was on the run. Four Taleban actions in particular were responsible for transforming public opinion concerning the need to fight against the Taleban.

First, the Taleban and other Islamist groups allied to them began to extend their campaign of terrorism from the Pathan areas to Punjab. The bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on 20 September 2008 was a forerunner of this, and a shattering blow to the complacency that had hitherto reigned among many of the Pakistani elites. In the winter and spring of 2009, attacks began in Lahore, including most notably an attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team on 3 March that left six policemen dead, and an attack on the police training academy on 30 March that killed twelve.

These attacks cruelly exposed the unpreparedness and vulnerability of the Punjab police, and brought home to the ruling classes in Lahore that the Taleban were not just a bunch of traditionally unruly Pathan tribesmen on the far-off Frontier, but were a real threat to themselves. When I visited Lahore in September 2008 immediately after my stay in the NWFP, I was shocked by the complacency and indifference of Lahoris of every class of society. When I returned in January 2009 this had begun to change a bit, but the real transformation came between then and my next visit in July 2009.

The second Taleban mistake – though one that was so bound up with their ideology and revolutionary purpose as to be inevitable – was the public caning of a seventeen-year-old girl for ‘immorality’ in Swat by the Taleban. Captured on a mobile phone camera, this film was very widely shown on Pakistani television in early April (with strong urging by the government and military), and caused general revulsion. However, the responses of the elites and of ordinary people with whom I spoke were rather different. Educated Pakistanis were outraged that it had happened at all; ordinary Pakistanis, that such punishment had been carried out in public before a male audience, when such punishments should be carried out in private and by the girl’s own family.

On 19 April, Sufi Muhammad Hassan, an Islamist leader whom the government had released from jail in return for a promise to negotiate a settlement with his son-in-law, Swati Taleban leader Maulana Fazlullah, made a speech in Swat in which he declared that ‘We hate democracy ... We want Islam in the entire world. Islam does not permit democracy or election.’ He also stated that there could be no appeal from Shariah courts in Swat to Pakistan’s higher courts (he had been saying the same things for many years, but the Pakistani media had never really taken notice before). Also widely reported in the media, this showed Pakistanis that the Taleban were by no means just good Muslims interested in promoting Islamic behaviour and Islamic justice (which many non-Islamists throughout the NWFP and Punjab had persisted in believing), but aimed at overthrowing the existing state and imposing their own rule.

It must be said, though, that, to judge by my interviews, the effect of all this among the Pakistani masses was somewhat less than government and military propaganda have suggested. So these developments alone would not have provoked a mass backlash or a strong counter-offensive against the Taleban. The tipping-point came in the second week of April 2009 when the Taleban sent hundreds of their fighters from Swat across the mountains into the neighbouring district of Buner, to the south-east. A completely insignificant place in itself (historically part of the Swat princely state) Buner therefore came to play an important role in Pakistani history.

Although Buner is only 70 miles from Islamabad, there are an awful lot of mountains in between, and no one in Pakistan seriously thought that its fall indicated that the Taleban were simply going to sweep on and take the capital. However, the capture of Buner brought the Taleban much closer to the motorway linking Islamabad and Peshawar, and to the Tarbela dam, which provides northern Pakistan with much of its electricity. The immediate and complete collapse of the local police in the face of the Taleban, and the easy routing of a local lashkar, were profoundly worrying. ‘They really seemed all set to go on to take Mansehra and Abbotabad,’ Major Tahir, a staff officer in Swat, told me later.

Most of all, I was told by officers, the fall of Buner produced a feeling in the army high command that the military’s prestige was now on the line; that if they failed to fight back now, people would begin to think that they would never fight. Not just ordinary Pakistanis but even Pakistani soldiers (especially in the Frontier Corps) would begin to look on the Taleban as the winning side, whom it would be wise to conciliate or even to join. At the same time, the army was encouraged by what officers described to me as a ‘180-degree change’ in the attitude of the ANP government and local politicians to military action.

Finally, the fall of Buner made it even more difficult to resist the growing pressure from Washington to take tougher action against the Pakistani Taleban. Pakistanis were stung by a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on 6 March describing the internal security situation in Pakistan as ‘threatening’ and hinting that it might collapse as a state. The fact that Pakistan desperately needed US aid, and goodwill in producing international aid, of course contributed greatly to the belief in the Pakistani establishment that something had to be done to please Washington. China, too, previously fairly relaxed about the growth of militancy in Pakistan, reportedly became alarmed by the Taleban’s takeover in Buner, and communicated this alarm to the Pakistani government.7 However, this outside pressure would not in itself have brought about a change in Pakistani behaviour, if the actions of the Taleban themselves had not produced a new sense of will in the political and military establishments, backed by a significant shift in public opinion.

It is difficult to say whether it was the army, the federal government under the PPP and President Zardari, or the NWFP government of the ANP who took the initiative in pressing for a counter-offensive, because, when it turned out to be a success, all tried to claim the chief responsibility. In fact, what seems to have happened is that all of these groups contained leading figures who for the past year had been pressing for a counter-attack; and the Taleban seizure of Buner empowered them to push this through against the resistance of hesitant colleagues.

The result was not just a counter-offensive in Buner and Swat, and then in south Waziristan, the Mohmand Agency and elsewhere, but a general tightening of policy and behaviour across the board. The army rigorously excluded journalists from the fighting zones, ensuring that they could not report Taleban views. Moreover (so I have been told by journalists) they used commentators and television anchors with military links to persuade or pressure them into supporting the military operations, making the same approach to media owners – who by this stage were themselves becoming alarmed by the Taleban’s rise, and the possible effects on their own fortunes.

A senior journalist in Peshawar described to me how on 27 April General Kayani invited him and eleven other Pathan journalists to see him and asked them for their backing in the coming military operation in Swat. Above all, he asked them in their reporting to play down the issue of collateral damage and civilian casualties, which had made previous operations so unpopular, and this they promised to do.

The change in media coverage was crucial to the change in Pakistani public opinion. Prior to this, the media had given extensive coverage to Taleban statements, and indeed had often given them equal time with official statements by the government and military. Contrary to allegations by Pakistani liberal publications like the Friday Times, this was not in general because of outright ideological support for the Taleban, but rather a reflection of Pakistani public opinion in general, which was prepared to see certain good sides in the Taleban and which tended to blame the Taleban and the government equally for violence.

The media of course also love a good scoop, which interviews with the Taleban often gave them. Finally, the media are just as addicted to conspiracy theories as the rest of Pakistani society and, like that society, for years had tended to accompany reports of Taleban terrorism with heavy hints about ‘foreign hands’ and conspiracies by the Pakistani intelligence services – which is only to say that before April 2009 the Pakistani media in their coverage of the Taleban were neither better nor worse than the society from which they came. All of this changed considerably when the army and state finally put their feet down.

The ANP also belatedly began to exercise real leadership as far as its own supporters and activists were concerned, ordering them to support the military operation and to stop criticizing the military for civilian casualties or alleged ties to the Taleban. Instead, ANP propaganda began stressing the number of ANP politicians who had been killed by the Taleban, and the Taleban’s threat to democracy in the NWFP. The change in the language of my ANP acquaintances concerning the army between August 2008 and July 2009 was truly astonishing. An additional reason, in the view of Major-General Ishfaq Ahmed, commanding the army in the Malakand division, was that ‘the new Chief of Army Staff [i.e. General Kayani] played a big part in this, because he made clear that he is not interested in a political role, so the politicians are no longer scared of us’.8


The Islamist militants’ takeover in Swat in 2007 – 9 was widely seen as a sign that they could extend their control from the tribal areas into the ‘settled areas’ of the NWFP, and further towards Islamabad. Much was made of the fact that Swat had previously been a tourist destination (I was told in August 2009 that I was the first Western tourist to visit the bazaar in Mingora for more than two years), and even, in the 1960s and 1970s, a stop on the ‘hippy trail’. All of this was rather misleading. Swat has a very specific history, different alike from the tribal areas and from the rest of the NWFP. The Islamists’ takeover was not a question of the ‘Taleban’ moving into Swat from outside, but of an overwhelmingly local movement which, while it placed itself under the name and banner of the Pakistani Taleban, remained completely autonomous.

Key to understanding the militants’ temporary success in Swat are three factors: a tradition of Islamist militancy in the region stretching back to the mid-nineteenth century; the nature of the princely state of Swat, which retained a semi-independence until 1969; and the way in which Swat was incorporated into Pakistan.

Despite social change in recent decades, Swat remains to a considerable extent a tribal society in which the Yusufzai Pathans dominate. As elsewhere in the Pathan lands, religious figures have wielded great authority. The Akhund of Swat (1794 – 1877) in the mid-nineteenth century was followed by the remarkable religious dynasty of the Mianguls, who for the first time created stable monarchical rule over the Swat valley. The British accepted and backed the Mianguls as rulers, partly because they were effective in crushing or expelling Islamist extremists (the ‘Hindustan fanatics’ or ‘Mujahidin’) who wished to use Swat as a base to carry out jihad against the British. Pakistan inherited the British protectorate, but in 1969 (twenty years after India had abolished its princely states), princely rule was ended and Swat was incorporated into Pakistan.

The law the princes exercised was based on a mixture of local tribal custom and the Shariah called rivaj, but – especially under the last prince (or Wali), Jehanzeb – they also created an autocratic but enlightened government which did a great deal to bring education and economic development to Swat. The small size of the population meant that the Walis could hand out judicial and administrative decisions directly to much of the population.

Justice was be Dalila, be Wakila au be Apela (without argument, without advocate, and without appeal) but was quick, cheap, transparent, generally fair, and above all in accordance with the local people’s own conceptions of justice. In a telling comment, Behrouz Khan, a native of Swat and correspondent for Geo TV in Peshawar, described the last Wali as ‘basically a kind of aristocratic Mangal Bagh’ (in a reference to the Islamist warlord mentioned in the last chapter) – dealing out autocratic, ruthless but popular justice leavened with humour.9

It is a very depressing comment on the quality of the Pakistani governmental, political and legal systems that every single person with whom I spoke in Swat – every single one, including Pakistani officials and officers – said that Swat had been better run under the last Wali, and that, in particular, the administration of justice had been far superior. As an army major (not a Swati) told me:

The merger of 1969 had a very bad effect on Swat. The Wali ruled with justice and fair play. He guaranteed all the amenities of life for the people. But from 1969 to the present, every Pakistani government has failed to administer justice and meet the needs and the aspirations of the people. So older people in Swat used to tell their sons and daughters how much better things had been before.

This deep public respect for the Wali’s memory led the Taleban to spare the homes of the old royal family in Saidu Sharif, despite their hatred for the landowning class in general. A certain Pathan nationalist element was also present in the nostalgia for independent Swat. It had been a Pathan state under Pathan princes, using the Pashto language for administration and justice; whereas in the NWFP as in the rest of Pakistan, the local language had been eclipsed in government, higher education and social status by either English or Urdu.

A historian of Swat, Sultan-i-Rome, writes that while under the old system the Wali and officials took direct responsibility for government, under the Pakistani system no one did. Merger led to ruthless exploitation of forests and plunder of natural resources and a huge increase in corruption. This amounted to ‘a sort of colonization of Swat by which it lost its separate identity, which had stood for centuries, if not millennia’.10

This history is of immense importance in explaining what happened in Swat, and why the militants’ temporary seizure of power in Swat is not necessarily a forerunner of similar developments elsewhere. Maulana Fazlullah, who in 2007 placed his movement under the aegis of the Pakistani Taleban, seems to have dreamed of re-creating the princely state as an independent Islamic emirate like Afghanistan under the Taleban, with himself as Emir.

The memory of Swat state left the population with a deep sense not only of the corruption and injustice but of the basic illegitimacy of the Pakistani judicial system. In consequence, within a couple of years of the merger with Pakistan, local figures were already calling for the adoption of the Shariah instead of Pakistani state law. These included men such as Dani Gul, who had led the democratic opposition to the Wali’s autocracy, but soon became bitterly disillusioned with Pakistan.

These feelings were increased by the twists and turns in Swat’s constitutional position within Pakistan, and especially its judicial system. From 1969 until 1974, Swat had no constitutionally recognized judicial code at all. In 1974, Swat and the other former Pathan princely states were named Provincially Administered Tribal Areas, or PATA. They came under the NWFP, but had a different legal system, including a stronger role for jirgas. Then in 1994, the Pakistani Supreme Court declared this arrangement unconstitutional and decreed the full incorporation of these territories into the Pakistani judicial order.

In response, in 1995, a local Islamist group, the Tehriq-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammedi (TNSM) or Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, launched mass protests in Swat and other areas of the Malakand Division in support of their demand for Shariah law. The protests blocked roads and government offices were seized. Several dozen people were killed, mostly in the resulting state crackdown. However, the national government of Benazir Bhutto backed down and agreed to a limited role for the Shariah in the administration of justice in the Malakand. The Nizam-e-Adl agreement of 2009 was therefore not nearly as new or as radical as most people assumed.

The TNSM’s founder, Maulana Sufi Muhammad, was a former local Jamaat Islami leader who had split from the party in 1992 in disgust at its opposition to armed revolution. Sufi Muhammad was arrested in 1994 but later released when he ordered his followers to call off their protests, and (doubtless with official encouragement) in the course of the 1990s became a prominent local mobilizer of support for the Afghan Taleban.

The TNSM also had close links with the Pakistani militant groups in Kashmir, where one of Sufi Muhammad’s chief lieutenants, Ibn-e-Amin, fought with Jaish-e-Mohammed in the 1990s. He and other TNSM commanders had previously fought with the Mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s – and one reason, I was told, why agitation for Shariah law had not happened much earlier was that so many local militants were away in Afghanistan.

The role of TNSM leaders in these conflicts involved close links to the ISI; and while I do not believe that the ISI promoted the TNSM in Swat for nefarious reasons of its own, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to suggest that they intervened on occasions in 2007 – 8 to save particular TNSM leaders (presumably old allies) from being arrested by the army or police. Less clear is whether these links played any part in discouraging the army from taking tougher action.

In 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan, Sufi Muhammad inspired thousands of his followers and new volunteers to fight there, and a very large number perished. In November 2001, at US insistence, the Musharraf administration imprisoned him again, and in February 2002 the TNSM was banned, together with other Islamist organizations.

However, the ban was not strictly enforced, and Maulana Fazlullah, Sufi Muhammad’s son-in-law, took over as the TNSM’s leader. He forged links with the emerging revolt in FATA, and gradually strengthened and armed the movement in Swat. Fazlullah and the TNSM made effective use of the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, partly by effective relief work, but also by portraying it as God’s punishment for Pathan sins. He spread the TNSM’s message partly though effective broadcasts on his local secret radio station, which gained him the nickname ‘Mullah FM’.

The expansion of TNSM power was made possible in part by the presence of the MMA Islamist government in Peshawar, which strongly discouraged tough action against them, and in particular by the MMAAPPOINTED Commissioner of the Malakand division, Syed Muhammad Javed, who is widely accused of having been a Taleban sympathizer. He was arrested in May 2009 for abetting the rebellion (though some officials have told me that he had been made an innocent scapegoat and that he was simply implementing government policy), and was released again in October 2009.

In July 2007, infuriated by the government’s attack on the Red Mosque in Islamabad, Fazlullah led the TNSM in open revolt, gained control of much of Swat and instituted Shariah courts under TNSM control. He had first declared war on the government in Swat in January 2006, when his brother, who was fighting with the Taleban on the Frontier, was killed in the US drone attack on a suspected Al Qaeda headquarters at Damadola in Bajaur. Fazlullah blamed the Pakistan government for helping the US, and vowed to take revenge.

Initially, as elsewhere, the TNSM/Taleban won much local popularity by eliminating local drug-dealers, kidnappers and other criminals whom the Pakistani police had been unwilling or unable to deal with. However, the Taleban then began attacks on local officials, policemen, military personnel and politicians. Their campaign of attacks on girls’ schools – which they declared un-Islamic – was so ferocious that even a spokesman for the Tehriq-e-Taleban Pakistan (TTP) begged them to desist. After the formation of the TTP, Fazlullah announced the adherence of the TNSM to the Taleban, while retaining full local autonomy.

In November 2007, the Pakistani army launched a major counter-offensive, which captured and destroyed Fazlullah’s headquarters and drove him and his men into the hills, from where they continued terrorist attacks. However, following the election of the ANP in February 2008, the new ANP government of the NWFP insisted on ending the operation and beginning negotiations with the Taleban. Sufi Muhammad was released from jail after renouncing violence and promising to mediate in negotiations. He did indeed manage to negotiate a ceasefire in May 2008, but the result was that Fazlullah and his followers returned to the Swat valley in force and took a savage revenge on local people who had supported the military actions against them. The local population not surprisingly became convinced that neither the politicians nor the army was serious about fighting the Taleban, and would not protect local people who opposed them. In the words of Major Tahir of the army staff, ‘people decided that the Taleban were here to stay and they had better get along with them’.

The result was increasing TNSM/Taleban control of Swat. Clashes with the military resumed in the summer and continued for the next six months, with hundreds killed and hundreds of thousands fleeing to the plains. Among the dead were a number of local leaders of the ANP and PPP, and many other local politicians and their families were driven out of Swat. In all, 238 schools were destroyed (mainly those for girls but including some for boys) out of 1,540 in Swat, and others were occupied and turned into militant bases.

The TNSM/Taleban forces which created this mayhem do not seem to have been especially well armed, at least to judge by the captured weapons which the army showed me in Mingora. As one would expect, their most dangerous asset by far was the Improvised Explosive Device (IED), several of which were on display, in some cases with remotecontrol mechanism. There were several dozen AK-47s and a few rocket-propelled grenades. However, there were also a large number of old bolt-action rifles, shotguns and pistols, some of them dating back to the Victorian era. In Swat at least it does not seem to have been TNSM/ Taleban weaponry that brought them their successes, but their ability to melt into the population, strike at unguarded or lightly guarded targets, terrify the police into inactivity, and run rings round the army.

This violent stand-off with the army in Swat continued until the negotiation of the Nizam-e-Adl agreement in February 2009, by which Shariah law became the only legal code in the Malakand Division. This agreement was welcomed by the great majority of ordinary Pakistanis with whom I have spoken, and the overwhelming majority of Swatis. In the case of the Swatis, this was not only because they wanted peace between the Taleban and the army, but also because they actively prefer the Shariah to the Pakistani legal system. Indeed, as of early 2010 the Nizam-e-Adl is still in force in Swat, and most people wish for it to remain so.

Interestingly, however, Fazlullah and the local TNSM/Taleban seem to have interpreted this agreement in exactly the same way as the West and the Pakistani liberal media – namely, as a sign that the Pakistani state and army were on the run and could be driven from one district after another. The resulting hubris led to their move into neighbouring Buner, which triggered their nemesis – the massive counter-offensive of the army against them.

By mid-summer of 2009, the military had driven the TNSM/Taleban from the Swat valley, captured hundreds of their activists, and – according to military figures – killed some 1,200 of them. However, the cost to the civilian population had been high. Though the military seems to have done its best to keep civilian deaths to a minimum, and damage in the city of Mingora itself was slight, villages where the TNSM/Taleban made a stand were heavily bombarded. Estimates of civilian casualties range from several dozen to several hundred, and more than 1.5 million people – amajority of the district’s population – fled from the fighting. By the end of the year almost all had returned – only to be displaced again the following August by the floods which swept down the Swat valley from the deforested mountains, destroying much of the region’s remaining infrastructure.


I visited Swat again (more than twenty years after I had gone there for a peaceful holiday) in August 2009, over two months after the army counter-offensive had begun. The army had cleared the Taleban from the Swat valley itself, and according to military figures by mid-August had killed or captured some 2,000 militants, while losing almost 200 of their own men; but another 3,000 – 4,000, led by their chief commanders, had taken refuge in the surrounding hills, and began to launch suicide bombings and occasional assassinations. However, in the four days that I spent in Swat and Buner I did not hear a single shot or explosion – a sign of the extent to which the army had regained control of the valley. Over the following months, the army managed to kill or capture many of the remaining Swati commanders.

The road leading up to Swat from Mardan and the plains is itself a reminder of the region’s turbulent past. To reach the Swat valley, you have to cross the dramatic Ambela pass, where in 1863 local tribesmen under the banners of Islam fought a long battle against a British invading army. The British eventually dislodged them from the heights, but accepted a compromise settlement and did not occupy the valley itself (three centuries earlier, a Mughal army dispatched by the Emperor Akbar had met disaster in an attempt to subdue the Yusufzais of Swat).

The reason for the British expedition had been to force the expulsion from the region of a group of Islamist militants (the surviving followers of Syed Ahmed Barelvi, mentioned in Chapter 1), whom the British called ‘Wahabis’ and ‘Hindustan fanatics’. These had been raiding British-controlled territory and attempting to stir up rebellions among other Pathans. How the hopelessly outgunned Swatis managed this is easy enough to see: the bare mountains rise almost sheer from the valley below, and a road hacked out from the mountainside crawls along their face. Viewed from the opposite hillside, the trucks carrying refugees back to their homes in Swat looked small as beetles. Then you cross the pass, and look down into the beautiful Swat valley, a sort of giant oasis with the Swat river meandering through it, fringed by willows and clumps of waving feather grass. In August 2010, this river became a raging torrent of destruction.

One of the reasons the floods of 2010 were so destructive is that the population has grown so much and settled in places always known to be vulnerable to flooding. The capital, Mingora – still quite a small town when I visited it in the 1980s – has suffered like everywhere else from the runaway growth of Pakistan’s population, and now is just another overcrowded semi-slum with between 300,000 and 450,000 people (as usual, no one knows for sure). When I first arrived, it smelled terrible, because of uncollected rubbish; but, by the time I left, municipal workers in laminated jackets were beginning to clear things up. Damage in Mingora itself was very limited; the Taleban had not tried to make a stand in the town, and the army had taken care not to bombard it.

Talking to people on the streets in Mingora was not very enlightening. Fear of the army was very obvious, and I had a strong sense of everyone looking over their shoulders to see who might be listening. Everyone said that they supported the military and hated the Taleban. Interviews with people from Swat in the Jalozai camp for displaced people near Peshawar a fortnight earlier had given a rather different impression (the ones conducted out of the hearing of the camp administration, that is).

They all described how popular the TNSM had been when the movement first started, because of their advocacy of the Shariah, their administration of harsh but fair justice, and their actions against corrupt and oppressive local politicians and landlords; but also because of the great prestige that many local people attached to their participation in the jihads in Afghanistan and Kashmir. All said that they supported Shariah law for Swat and wanted the Nizam-e-Adl agreement to remain in force.

A large majority said that their sympathy for the Taleban had declined sharply over the previous year. For this they gave various reasons. Among the most common were that after the Nizam-e-Adl agreement the Taleban had shown that they were not really interested in the Shariah but in power for themselves. Many people mentioned the petty and not-so-petty harassment of local people and the offences against local traditions of dancing and singing at weddings, and so on. Particular offence had been caused by young Taleban boys stopping older men in the street in front of their families and ordering them to stop trimming their beards. ‘In our Pashtun culture, we show respect to our elders,’ one man growled.

The TNSM/Taleban also established a growing reputation for savagery, which frightened people into silence but also deeply shocked them. The IDPs (Internally Dispaced Persons) mentioned two cases in particular (not, interestingly enough, the public caning of the girl which caused so much offence among educated people elsewhere in Pakistan). One was when the Taleban publicly hanged four local policemen in the main bazaar in Mingora to frighten the rest of the police into surrender – ‘and they were just local men, we didn’t know anything bad that they had done,’ as one IDP said.

The other incident that caused great disgust was the TNSM/Taleban’s treatment of Pir Samiullah. He was a leading hereditary religious figure from the Barelvi tradition and guardian of his family shrine at Mangal Dagh, and had led local opposition to the Taleban. It was not the fact that the TNSM/Taleban killed him that caused the disgust, but the fact that they later dug up his body, hung it in public for three days, and then blew it up with explosives, scattering bits for hundreds of yards – in order to shatter the mystique attached to the body of a pir. ‘To kill your enemy is one thing,’ I was told by local people, ‘but to desecrate his body, that is not Muslim and not Pashtun.’

On the other hand, quite contrary to government propaganda, sympathy for the Taleban had by no means evaporated altogether. A majority of those I spoke with in the Jalozai IDP camp near Peshawar, albeit a small one, still blamed the army and the Taleban equally for the violence and destruction that had taken place, and said that the government should still try to make peace with the Taleban. ‘In the end, this is all America’s doing,’ an old man said. ‘They have brought this war to Pakistan.’

This impression was confirmed by a local schoolteacher to whom we gave a lift on the way to Swat from Ambela. He said that when the TNSM first appeared, the vast majority of the local population supported them, but that most had changed their minds as a result of their fanaticism and when it became apparent that they wanted power for themselves. Still, he said that 15 – 20 per cent of people continued to support them, and this estimate was backed in private by officers and local journalists with whom I talked.


Some of the reasons why a good many local people blame the army and the TNSM/Taleban equally became apparent on a drive up the Swat valley from Mingora to the village of Doroshkhel near Matta about a third of the way up the valley, where I went to see a local ANP leader, Afzal Khan Lalla. Along the way, we passed numerous destroyed buildings, some on their own, others clustered together where battles had been taking place.

As we went, my guide gave me a running commentary:

That building there was a hotel owned by an ANP politician. The Taleban burned it last year ... That was a Taleban madrasah which the army destroyed ... Those houses over there were destroyed by shelling when the army attacked in June ... That used to be a girls’ school which the Taleban destroyed ... Those shops over there were owned by a Taleban sympathizer. The army blew them up last month ...

I began to see the differences between houses destroyed from above by bombs or shellfire and those blown up from below by explosives.

Major Tahir told me candidly:

We have demolished more than 400 houses belonging to Taleban members. Destroying houses in this way is an old punishment among Pashtuns. And seeing their homes demolished, local people are encouraged. They see that this time we are really serious about fighting the Taleban.11

No doubt this is true, but it is also easy to see how an ordinary inhabitant of the Swat valley might feel that his or her neighbourhood was suffering equally from the two sides and call a plague on both their houses. In addition, according to a solidly researched report of Human Rights Watch published in July 2010, the army in Swat has been carrying out a very considerable number of extra-judicial executions of captured Taleban and suspected Taleban supporters. Human Rights Watch said it had firm evidence of 50 such killings, and had been told of 238 in all.12

The widespread use of extra-judicial executions was confirmed for me in an off-hand way by Afzal Khan. Immediately after my interview with him, he went to sit in a jirga with elders from the nearby Sakha side-valley. They were trying through Afzal Khan to negotiate the surrender of the local Taleban commander in their valley, named Gul Yar (whom most of them had reportedly supported), so as to avoid attack by the army. I asked what terms they were trying to negotiate: ‘Well, firstly of course that the army should not shoot him out of hand, because that is what they do with most Taleban commanders they capture,’ I was told.

I met Afzal Khan in his ancestral village of Doroshkhel. Afzal Khan is not in fact the staunch ANP loyalist that ANP propaganda since 2008 has tried to make out. Like so many Pathan landowning politicians, he has repeatedly moved between parties, and sometimes stood as an independent, depending on circumstances and personal and family advantage. In 2009, a nephew was a minister in the ANP government in Peshawar and other relatives were scattered through the national and provincial assemblies.

Long before I visited Swat, ANP leaders whom I met in Peshawar were presenting Afzal Khan as an iconic ANP figure, for one reason and one reason only: he had stood his ground in the face of the Taleban, when most of the ANP and other politicians in the area had been driven out by them. This flight was very understandable in view of the number of politicians killed by the Taleban, but in a culture which has traditionally prized physical courage above any other virtue, it has nonetheless done them and the ANP terrible damage.

Afzal Khan’s reputation for courage was not undeserved. It is true that his village and the compound of his extended family were defended not only by his own followers but by the Pakistani army; but it is also true that this determined eighty-two-year-old great-grandfather stayed on leading his men after he had been wounded in an ambush in which two of his guards and his nephew were killed. It probably helps his public image that he certainly looks the part of a chieftain. The garden of his home in Doroshkhel could have been an English garden, on an English summer afternoon – if you can imagine an English garden with a machinegun nest in one corner, and sitting in the other an owner who bears a strong resemblance to a giant bald-headed eagle.

Pathan features are often on a large scale (and the noses of ANP politicians sometimes seem to be growing in sympathetic if hopeless emulation of the epic hereditary protuberances of their ruling dynasty, the Wali Khans), but whether in reality, or because of his rather overwhelming character, Afzal Khan’s nose, ears and eyebrows seemed truly enormous. I must also say, however, that if set of eyes and shape of mouth are anything to go by, like many a chieftain Afzal Khan owes his leadership not only to his courage and determination but to a very considerable capacity for ruthlessness.

This was indeed his reputation in Swat long before the TNSM began their rebellion, and it brings me to one key element in the Taleban’s appeal, which seems especially marked in Swat: that of class resentment and even of class war. This was of course fervently denied by Afzal Khan and other politicians with whom I spoke, but I heard it from a great many other sources, including Pakistani army officers. Since the end of Swat state, as agriculture has become more commercialized, so certain landowning khans have used their power to encroach on the lands of weaker neighbours. This also helped to increase loathing of the Pakistani judicial system.

As I was told:

A khan politician would use his gunmen to seize some poor farmer’s land and his political connections to stop the administration doing anything about it. Then he would say to the farmer, ‘Sure, take me to court. You will pay everything you have in bribes, you will wait thirty years for a verdict, and the verdict will still be for me. So what are you going to do about it?’ Well, when the TNSM came up, that farmer could do something about it. He joined them.

Such behaviour was by no means true of all or even most khans, but it was widespread enough to cause great resentment.

The TNSM/Taleban never adopted land reform as a formal part of their programme, but they used their power to redress local grievances like the one just described, recover seized land for the poor and drive out unpopular landlords. This social radicalism was related in complex ways to their appeal to non-Pathan communities in Swat, the Gujjars and Kammis, who make up a large though undefined proportion of Swat’s population.

The Gujjars were originally a nomadic tribe in the plains of northern India. In Swat, they had traditionally been tenants of the Yusufzai Pathan tribe which had dominated the valley since the sixteenth century (indeed, in Swat and elsewhere, ‘Pathan’ and ‘landowning farmer’ were traditionally synonyms). The Kammis were a service caste of bakers, barbers, butchers, artisans, and so on, probably of Hindu origin. They had traditionally not farmed land or even owned their houses. However, with the breakdown of the old order, Gujjars and even Kammis had acquired land of their own, while remaining especially vulnerable to oppression by the Pathan khans.

The TNSM/Taleban never made an explicit public appeal to Gujjars and Kammis against the Yusufzai Pathans – they could not possibly have done, being overwhelmingly Yusufzais themselves. Given Yusufzai dominance, such an appeal would also have been fatal to the militants’ chances. Rather they did two things: by stressing their ideological commitment to an egalitarian community of all Muslims, they appealed to Gujjar and Kammi sentiments in a looser and vaguer way; and they redressed – often savagely – particular acts of oppression by khans against these communities.

Thus I was told that more than a decade before the TNSM rebellion began, the son of a khan had abducted and raped a Kammi girl, and had of course never been prosecuted for this. He had already fled, but the Taleban burned down his family home and drove them out, saying that this was overdue punishment for the rape, ‘and, of course, that got all the Kammis of the neighbourhood on their side’.

As a result of the army crushing the Taleban in Swat in 2009, the old khan families, good and bad, are coming back – and it remains to be seen if the bad ones have learned a lesson from what happened to them, or whether they will simply use the army to restore their power, take revenge on their enemies and resume their old oppressions. This is a danger which has some Pakistani soldiers of my acquaintance seriously worried. Structures of local wealth and authority in Swat have been further damaged by the floods of 2010. All of this suggests that while the army’s reconquest of Swat in the summer of 2009 has proved that it will fight to preserve Pakistan and that Pakistan will therefore be preserved, it will not be the end of Islamic militancy in this region.

This is also demonstrated by the progress of fighting in FATA. The Pakistan army’s reconquest of Swat was followed by offensives in south Waziristan and other areas of FATA which regained much territory and killed some 570 Pakistani Taleban fighters (76 soldiers also died). The Pakistani Taleban response was greatly to intensify their terrorist attacks inside Pakistan and make them even more indiscriminate.

By February 2010, according to official figures, 7,598 civilians had died in Pakistan, as a result of terrorist attacks, Taleban executions, military action, or US drone attacks. It is worth noting that this figure is two and a half times the number of Americans killed on 9/11. By that time, 2,351 soldiers had been killed – two and a half times US military deaths in Afghanistan.13 According to Pakistani official estimates (which may of course be exaggerated) by mid-2010 the conflict with the Pakistani Taleban and their allies had cost Pakistan some $35 billion dollars in state spending and economic losses – almost twice the $18 billion in US aid that Pakistan had received by that date.

During the same period, according to the Pakistani military, the Pakistani Taleban and their allies had lost 17,742 men killed or captured – though how many of these were real fighters rather than sympathizers is impossible to say. What can be said is that, despite all this, as of late 2010 the militants remained in control of much of FATA; and, also, that the Pakistan military seemed highly unwilling to attack them in some areas like north Waziristan – apparently because this would risk bringing the Pakistani forces into conflict with the Afghan Taleban and their allies (especially the followers of the Haqqani clan) based in these areas. So despite the much tougher approach to Pakistan’s own Taleban threat in 2009 – 2010, action against the Afghan Taleban continued to be limited by all the factors set out in this book, and this in turn limited to some extent action against Pakistani militants, at least in FATA.

The continued strength of militancy in these areas is, however, not due chiefly to constraints on the Pakistani military. As in many other Pathan territories in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the roots of Taleban support are far too old and deep to be eradicated by military action alone – yet the Pakistani political parties, civilian bureaucracy and private businessmen all seem very far from being able to back up military action with real local development, let alone a more equitable political and judicial system. By 2010, the threat that militants would push the Pakistani state into collapse had been defeated – in so far as it had ever existed; but terrorism and local unrest will be with Pakistan for the foreseeable future.

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