Since May this year the Pakistani Army has been engaged in fierce combat in the Swat valley against a branch of the Pakistani Taliban. Who are the rebels and what do they want? A recent urdu-language video by al-Sahab features an interview with a Pakistani Taliban commander named Hafizullah. It offers useful insights into the Tehrik-e-Taliban-Swat’s ideology. In this two-part post I will take a closer look at the interview.
The video starts with a profile of Hafizullah: “Hafizullah hails from the Swat valley of Pakistan and has for the past 13 years been involved in the jihads in Afghanistan, Kashmir and now Pakistan. He received his early military training in 1996 Afghanistan, after which he fought with the Taliban on four different fronts – Kabul, Bagram, Bamyan, and Charykar. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, he was put exclusively in charge of the Bagram front. Previously affiliated with Pakistan’s intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Hafizullah switched allegiance after the said agency incarcerated him in 2004 (for over two years). A sympathiser of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, he was involved in the movement to avenge the 2007 army raid on the mosque, and became active in the jihad for nifaz-e-shariat in Swat – namely the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) (Movement for the Enforcement of Sharia).”
Lal Masjid: The Pakistan army’s Operation Silence on Lal Masjid in July 2007 seems to remain a motivating factor behind the uprising of jihadi activities in Swat. When asked “When did the Swat Taliban emerge in this region?” Hafizullah replies “One of the initial reactions to Lal Masjid took place in Swat, so it was two years ago that we started militancy here – since then we have been involved in jihad.”
Sharia: The enforcement of Sharia law is repeatedly underlined as the key reason for the jihad in Swat: “Since 1992 we have been fighting for this [Shariat]. We aim to establish Shariat in the world; that is why we sent fighters to Afghanistan and Kashmir.”
In response to the question “who is your preferred target and on what basis?” Hafizullah answers “anything or anybody coming in the way of Sharia” – that is, the murtad fauj or “apostate army” which has been “removed from the sphere of Islam.”
It should be remembered that the TNSM has been active in Swat since the early 1990s, and establishing Sharia in the valley has been their primary objective. Although the Swat militants give allegiance to Baitullah Mehsud and call him their Emir, the TTP movement in this region is shaped by its own history and local politics, and retains a unique flavour separating it from the Waziristani Tehrik. TNSM’s old agenda to enforce Sharia in Swat seems to be its cardinal goal, one which possibly overshadows that of carrying out jihad in Afghanistan or a defensive jihad against the Pakistani state. The recent peace agreement with Swat militants centred on the establishment of Sharia law.
Guerrilla war: Hafizullah boasts carrying out at least 25 fidayeen attacks inside Swat, while some operations were also conducted in Islamabad and Peshawar.
He also boasts their success in fighting the military; “Our first major battle was in Imam Dheri […] In Charbagh their (dead) bodies were left with us while they ran away. In Khwazakhel… we captured 50 vehicles loaded with ammunition.” Rebel acquisition of army equipment, including night vision goggles, launchers, and RPG 7s, occurs on a daily basis in Swat.
Hafizullah describes the militants’ recent retreat in the face of the Pakistani army’s advance as an important “tactic” of guerrilla warfare: “they [army] comes and wastes their weapons, shooting in the dark, and then go away thinking they have been victorious […] and once their attacks have subsided, we lay down mines, carry out fidayeen attacks, and inflict maximum damage upon them.”
Furthermore, Hafizullah boasts greater territorial control over the “apostate army” and blames the “Jewish-controlled media” for exaggerating the army’s success in the region.
“As you have now seen, you know who is more victorious […] most roads are under our control and they cannot pass without our permission.” He specifies that of the four primary routes to Swat, three are under the control of the Taliban – namely, via Dir, Malakand and Buner.
Defensive jihad/“murtad fawj”: Pakistan is viewed as one of the few countries in the world to have caused tremendous damage to Islam on a vast scale, and is blamed for the ongoing war in neighbouring Afghanistan as well by strengthening the enemy; “Pakistan has been providing them with logistics, equipment, etc., as well as spy planes who leave from their bases inside Pakistan to attack in Afghanistan.”
The image conjured of the Pakistani army is that of a vicious, un-Islamic enemy who destroys mosques, kills innocent tribesmen/its own people, and even steals from them.
“You never hear of planes flying to India or other enemies, but when Pakistani army] planes do fly, it’s to attack its own people. It’s always Muslims, be it our Arab or Afghan friends.
The majority killed by these infidels are the locals. Their first target is always mosques. […] They know that mosques are a symbol of Islam and Muslims, and therefore set out to attack Islam. For example, in Swat, I would say at least 40 or 50 mosques have been attacked. The other day in a village in Matta they killed 14 children and women along with a mosque.
Wherever they have gone, they have killed children, women and the elderly who have nothing to do with the Taliban. And they have looted their homes where ever they may have found something valuable, e.g. gold, watches, stereos…”
Local support: The Swati Taliban claims to have the locals on their side: “… We are children of these people and they are our own. We live like brothers. We have a healthy relationship with them where they give us food and shelter, and we cooperate on matters. We are always in touch with the locals and share with them their burdens/grievances. We have built roads [for the Swati people] where in over 60 years the government could not. The locals are happy with us. They no longer need to pay tax to the government. We have build pipelines and provided water to people. […] Also we resolved decade-long rivalries that had been going on and which the government failed to bring about peace. The Taliban have appointed ulema to solve these cases and bring peace.”
The Swati Taliban assumes the role of a surrogate government by providing its citizen’s basic amenities – roads and water. And of course justice, which the locals feel deprived of, believing that the Pakistani government time and again ignores the developmental needs of this region. On top of this, the commander conjures a horrific picture of the Pakistani army; he pins the blame for collateral damage during warfare on the military – not only do they take innocent lives, they also steal from peoples’ homes. These are the words and imagery the Taliban deliver in places they conquer, thus feeding on the vulnerabilities of the locals who have lost their relatives or friends in the ongoing, or been displaced or disoriented by it.
I will cover the rest of the video in a forthcoming post.