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Fear and despair grip Pakistan’s Swat as TTP foothold increases

Pakistan’s scenic district of Swat and its adjoining areas are once again becoming a hotbed for terrorists as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) affiliates have started to come out from the shadows and make moves on a bigger scale, locals say.

For the past month or so, armed men belonging to the TTP who allegedly gunned down dozens of civilians and security officials in recent months, are being regularly seen in the area, which has been at the centre of Islamabad’s successive military operations since 2009.

“There is fear among people. They don’t know what’s going on,” Jamal Abdullah Usman, a journalist who hails from Swat, tells TRT World. “Nobody thought they could ever return. But now they have.”

Usman says gun-toting TTP members frequenting the district’s streets have become a common sight in the past 20 or 25 days – an eyesore for much of the society.

“It is true that people are extremely scared. But they are making it clear that talibs are not welcome in the area anymore,” Usman says. “In clear contrast to the last time when the Taliban enjoyed people’s backing, now there is disapproval of their presence and an evident ideological divide.”

Swat is a part of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, bordering Afghanistan where the Afghan Taliban seized power last year after ousting the Western-backed government in Kabul.

The Pakistani Taliban is not the same as the Afghan Taliban. These are two different entities with contrasting ambitions and their leadership has almost always varied, though many of their affiliates have shared close family ties.

The United Nations Security Council moved against the TTP in 2011, naming the group in its consolidated sanctions list, later imposing sanctions on its successive chiefs Mullah Fazlullah and Noor Wali Mehsud.

A UN report released earlier in February estimated that about 3,000 to 4,000 TTP fighters were regrouped in Afghanistan under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud, mentioning further that talks were ongoing regarding the fighters’ resettlement to Pakistan to reunite with their families under assurances of reintegrating peacefully into local communities.

Return of talibs

The Pakistani Taliban’s return caught attention of the media after Inayatullah Khan, a member of KP provincial assembly, submitted an adjournment motion in the assembly on the deteriorating law and order situation in the Malakand division, which neighbours Swat, causing a sense of insecurity among the citizens.

A day before the submission of the adjournment motion, Mushtaq Ahmad Khan, a member of Senate, posted a gory video
(TW: blood/gunshot) on his official Facebook page, showing members of Pakistan’s law enforcers under the custody of the talibs.

“Even after erecting border fences, establishing security check-posts and in the presence of the army and other law enforcers, how come the Taliban managed to take over most of the mountains of Swat,” he said.

It stands unclear at present whether the resurgence of some of the fighters in Swat is a part of any negotiation on part of Pakistani authorities, but what’s apparent is that the development comes at a time of political upheaval in the country.

On one hand, the former Prime Minister Imran Khan is challenging the recently formed government of a coalition of some major political parties, while on the other, the country is facing a dire economic crisis amid depleting foreign reserves said to be just enough to cover two months worth of imports.

Khan, addressing a press conference on Wednesday, said his party faces a direct threat from the TTP. “Many of my ministers and MPs (members of provincial assembly) are telling me that they are receiving threats from the TTP,” he said.

Khan had been a big supporter of a political dialogue with the TTP in the past.

The former prime minister’s acknowledgment of the threat was in line with what an opposition party member revealed during another press conference late last month.

Aimal Wali Khan, president of Awami National Party’s KP wing – Khan’s rival party in the province – made a shocking revelation, saying at least three PTI ministers, provincial chief minister and the former speaker of National Assembly Asad Qaiser were already paying extortion money to the TTP affiliates.

TRT World made several attempts to approach Qaiser, but contact was not established. Other PTI ministers, too, haven’t yet come forward denying the assertion.

A leading Pakistani paper reported two weeks ago that industrialists, traders, politicians, contractors among other well-off people in the KP province received calls to pay extortion and those refusing to do so were attacked, often with grenades at their homes, businesses.

Tales of despair

Zahid Khan, a former leader of the anti-Taliban tribal council, or Swat Qaumi Jirga, is a survivor of several assasination attempts on his life for standing up to the hardline talibs.

Khan says he will always remember August 3, 2012. “A bullet went straight through my head. Thanks to Allah, I survived,” he recalls.

“We know what it was like when the TTP was in control. It still gives me goosebumps whenever I think of those days. Our women weren’t safe, our burials weren’t safe and even our mosques weren’t safe.”

Abid Afridi, a peace activist from the erstwhile FATA region of the KP province, echoes Khan’s sentiments. “We were told there will be peace. But all we have is uncertainty,” he says.

“Our tribal elders have decided to meet with the senior army officials and we will take this up to them. Once we meet them, inform them and hear what they have to say, only then we can truly understand what’s going on.”

Afridi says there is a sense of fear in the air – something, he adds, he doesn’t remember was the case for many years. “We thought things were getting better,” he says.

Khan, meanwhile, serves as the head of hotel associations in Swat. He tells TRT World as of now tourists are coming in, but thinks if the talibs manage to consolidate their control again, then it will be the locals of the area who will suffer the most.

Khan says he doesn’t understand the need to negotiate with the TTP.

“It would’ve been understandable if the talibs sought negotiations to reunite with their families and to reintegrate. But we are not seeing them laying down their arms or reuniting with their families or reintegrating,” he says.

“Why are they not returning to their homes? Why have they gone up to the mountains?”

Talking with TTP

Pakistan’s government began negotiating with the TTP in October last year on the insistence of the Afghan Taliban. After several disruptions and disagreements, the negotiations resumed in April, reaching a ceasefire agreement with the outlawed group.

But it wasn’t until July 5 that the Pakistani military secured the approval of the country’s Parliamentary Committee on National Security to begin peace talks, which were mandated to be overseen by a parliamentary committee.

A report by a Pakistani newspaper said “there was nearly a consensus that the talks should be held”. The Prime Minister’s Office, too, issued a statement following the proceedings, announcing the approval for the process of negotiations and formation of a ‘Parliamentary Oversight Committee’.

This is not the first time Pakistan is engaging with the TTP. Since the formation of the group in 2007, the country has held several negotiations, with the last one taking place in 2014, which failed and led to Pakistan launching a country-wide military operation against the group.

While the details of the terms of the ongoing negotiations are not yet known, the arrival of the Taliban affiliates in KP’s Swat area has been attracting regular protests by the citizens.

Pakistan’s Minister of Defence Khwaja Asif, who is a senior leader of the ruling party, spoke on the floor of the National Assembly this Wednesday, acknowledging that “anti-Taliban feelings were growing in the KP province”, but expressing hope “the Taliban would not force imposition of their own system and implement their intentions which they have showed from time to time”.

To give assurance to a rising sense of fear among the people of Swat, KP’s provincial police are asking the people to have faith in them.

The police say they are aware of videos circulating on social media of heavy presence of militants in Swat, adding that they are also aware of the apprehension in public that the region may return to the 2008 and 2009 era when militants ruled the valley.

“KP police assure the public that we are fully cognizant of the fact that some individuals from Swat previously living in Afghanistan are present in far flung mountainous areas of Swat,” says the statement.

However, it says, the region is under control of the civil administration and all law enforcement agencies (LEAs) are ready “to respond to any misadventure”.

“Peaceful society of Swat has no space for terrorism in any form and manifestation. LEAs are appropriately placed and will resort to all possible measures to ensure peace in Swat as per aspirations of the local populace.”

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