Travelling along the road leading to the Swat valley is a memorable experience. As the narrow dual carriageway snakes around impossibly steep mountain ranges, the breathtaking vista of snow-capped peaks come into view as they loom over an emerald green valley pierced by the Swat River. It looks too perfect to be natural.
‘The beauty of Swat is unmatched in the world,’ says Ashraf, a Swati villager and journalist who agreed to take me to the region. When I ask if anyone maintains the near perfectly manicured grasslands and pine forests he laughs and shakes his head. Described in local poetry as heaven on earth, for centuries Swat has been home to saints and soothsayers–first those hailing from Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and in more recent centuries mystical Sufi Islam.
But these mountains can be treacherous too, something I realise after I dare to glance down at the unfenced road where the rusting wreckage of cars and trucks litter the foot of the mountains. Still, given this breathtaking backdrop and its history, it is hard to imagine that this once tranquil alpine resort could become the site for a savage battle for Pakistan’s soul.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
‘We had everything, flowers, forests, factories… But everything has been devastated–our businesses, our communities… we [lost] everything because of the Taliban and the Army,’ says Purmanri, a small business owner from Mingora, the region’s largest city.
In July 2007, local militias claiming to fight in the name of the Taliban initiated a string of bombings, taking local police and paramilitaries completely by surprise. In the chaos and confusion they quickly installed a parallel government demanding taxes from civilians and the prohibition of music shops and other practices such as folk poetry and ‘un-Islamic’ dance.
This was not the first time that ultra conservative Islam had been aggressively imposed on the region. In 1989, as Russian tanks began rolling out of Afghanistan, disillusioned religious hardliner Sufi Mohammad Khan left the Jamiat-e-Islami political party, Pakistan’s largest mainstream religious political party, to establish Tehreek-e-Nifaaz-e-Shariat-Mohammadi or Movement for the Promotion of Islamic Law. Sufi had spent the late 1980s fighting and recruiting young men for the anti-Communist mujahedeen in what was one of the dirtiest of Cold War conflicts.
With the Soviet withdrawal, Sufi returned to his native Swat where he vigorously lobbied for the enactment of an Islamic legal system that would only a few years later reach global notoriety under the Taliban in Afghanistan. Five years later, in 1994, TSNM activists blocked the main highway linking the entire Malakand Division of northwest Pakistan (which includes Swat) from the rest of the country. Government authorities, wary of the destabilising effects of continued violence on what was then a major source of tourism in Pakistan, acquiesced to Sufi’s demands.
This rapid acquiescence was an early indicator for Pakistani Islamists that when pressure was placed on the state, the state would give in to their demands. In truth, the Pakistan state itself was largely to blame for this dangerous blowback, after the Army under military dictator Gen. Zia ul Haq spent the previous decade developing a militant infrastructure in the tribal frontier that borders Afghanistan.
A veteran politician from Swat, speaking anonymously out of fear of retribution, told me that Sufi had always maintained close links with Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. As they shifted their focus away from Afghanistan and towards Kashmir, the Inter Services Intelligence, the Pakistan Army’s clandestine operations agency, sought to maintain the same recruitment infrastructure that had proved so devastatingly effective against the Soviets.
That relationship appeared to change after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. Dramatically transformed from pariah state to key ally in the new War on Terror, Pakistan’s Gen. Pervez Musharraf ordered TSNM to be banned and Sufi imprisoned after he led a group of 10,000 men into Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban against pro-US forces in Afghanistan.
Yet in the intervening years, Sufi’s son-in-law, Fazlullah, continued where his father’s fiery sermons had left off. When in 2004 Fazlullah began incendiary clandestine radio broadcasts decrying Pakistan’s support for the US occupation of Afghanistan and threatening women and music shop owners with violence, authorities looked the other way.