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Archive for February 28th, 2008

PBS Frontline presented an insightful program entitled, “Pakistan: State of Emergency,” a look into the NWFP/FATA region which has largely become a battleground between Pakistani security forces and Pakistani Taliban militants. Frontline/World reporter David Montero visited Swat Valley, “once the crown jewel of Pakistan’s tourism trade,” but now a haven for these extremists. In the Frontline documentary, Montero had to wear local clothes and brown contact lenses to blend in with the mostly Pashtun (Pathan) population. In the past, he noted, “the people of Swat have resisted extremism and violence.” Despite this, he reported, “the Taliban were entrenching themselves, building a $2.5 million madrassa, or religious school, on the outskirts of town. It became the base for their leader, a mysterious cleric known as the ‘radio mullah‘ for his sermons and tirades broadcast by his pirate radio station. His name is Maulana Fazlullah.” The 33 year old militant leads the Swat-based extremist group, the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM).
Fazlullah was dubbed the ‘radio mullah’ because he operates a pirate radio station in Swat, which he uses to praise the Taliban and broadcast his overarching message, which Frontline noted includes a ban on music and dancing, the absolute concealment of the female body, and the discouragement of education for girls. According to the program, he also tried to stop a polio vaccination campaign in Swat, “claiming it was a Western ploy to make Muslims infertile.” In September 2007, Fazlullah launched a violent campaign in the city, capturing towns throughout the valley and killing security and police personnel. The documentary includes some disturbing footage of those killed, including the bodies of policemen who were beheaded by the Taliban. Montero interviewed Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban, in the program, who said, “We should remember the Taliban were never defeated by the Americans. They were routed, and they fled Afghanistan and came to Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban and Al Qaeda, who are living in Pakistan, have nurtured a whole new generation of Pakistani extremists. So, this is a very, very dangerous phenomenon.”When Fazlullah’s campaign began in Swat, the populace began pleading with Musharraf‘s government to take action. Islamabad instead reacted slowly and “half-heartedly,” initially only sending in a poorly trained paramilitary force. Many subsequently turned to Swat’s prince Asfandiar Amir Zeb, a moderate and a leading voice against the Taliban. He explained to Montero that Fazlullah was able to attract a following in Swat because of popular discontent with the Pakistani government, which, he said, had grown corrupt and neglected to develop the region. However, once Fazlullah’s violent agenda became apparent, people turned against him. Nevertheless, the Musharraf government continued to react slowly, until, two months into the campaign, ordering 20,000 soldiers into Swat. Although most of Fazlullah’s men were killed and the army regained control of most of the area, the mullah and his top commanders escaped into the mountains. Rashid commented on the military campaign in the program, emphasizing, “I think the operation has been a total disaster. The military moved in, as usual, far too late….This could have been nipped in the bud two years ago by a small police operation.”

Rashid ultimately blamed Musharraf for having an inconsistent policy toward extremists in Swat and in the tribal areas along the Afghan border – sometimes he appeases militants by offering truces and payoffs, sometimes he cracks down on them. The PBS Frontline episode was significant because it emphasized that these extremists don’t have the support of the people in the area – in fact, their campaign of violence and terror has largely caused the population to turn against these groups. However, the government’s inconsistencies and inefficiency only succeeded in demoralizing the populace. A newly elected coalition government, in my opinion, must regain the trust of the people, especially in the northern areas. Although there have been indications that the government might sit down and negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban, the new regime must remember to practice consistency – not just with its own policies but with the actions of the military, who needs the support of the country to succeed in its campaign in the north.

You can watch the PBS/Frontline documentary online [see previous link]. The website also has an interview with Montero, as well as an interactive map on tribal Pakistan. [Image from PBS]

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