Development Question-Marks in Pakistan: The case of the Swat Valley

Barkha Shah | 01 Nov 2020
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Following the Red Mosque siege in Islamabad in July 2007, the latest military crackdown in the Swat Valley in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) exhibited the government’s commitment to the war against terror and extremism in Pakistan and reinforced Pakistan’s status as an active US ally. More importantly, this incident has drawn attention to the ongoing tumult in the Swat Valley area, which has traditionally been considered a tourist haven.

Questions regarding the factors which led the Swat Valley to become a hub of religious extremism are now increasingly being raised in the local media. Located in the middle of the foothills of the Hindukush mountain range, the lush green Swat Valley, also known as the ‘Switzerland of the East’, had the reputation of being Pakistan’s premier tourist attractions till the turn of the century.

Tourist traffic started declining post-2002, when the region started manifesting extremist Islamic tendencies under the auspices of Mullah Fazlullah, a pro-Taliban religious cleric from the Swat district. Mullah Fazlullah is the son-in-law of Maulana Sufi Muhammad who is the founder of the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM), a radical group which has been trying to enforce Islamic Shariah law in the region.

Mullah Fazlullah, more popularly known as “Mullah Radio”, has been making radio broadcasts preaching Islam and the importance of the imposition of Shariah through an FM Radio station based in the village of Imam Dheri in the Swat district since 2004. However, over time, Mullah Fazlullah’s radio broadcasts have become increasingly anti-American and anti-government in nature, so much so that after the Red Mosque siege in July 2007, Mullah Fazlullah urged the local populace to wage jihad or holy war against the Pakistani authorities.

To combat the rising militant threat, the Pakistani army had deployed more than 2000 troops in the Swat district on the 24th of October, 2007. The very next day, Mingora, the busy town centre of Swat, witnessed a bomb attack on a truck carrying ammunition and paramilitary soldiers, resulting in a death toll of over 30, including 17 soldiers. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack so far, but most assume that the attack was Mullah Fazlullah’s initiative, carried out by one of his several hundred followers.

The common perception is that this attack was a response to the Red Mosque siege and/or to the deployment of troops in the Swat district. Also, politicians and analysts are pointing fingers at the Mutahida Majlis e-Amal (MMA) government in NWFP for allowing extremist Islamic tendencies the space to propagate anti-government sentiment.

While these factors are essential to understand the recent tumult, it is more important to explore the deeper factors behind the increasing militancy in the area.

Swat remained an independent princely state until 1969, after which the Pakistani government intervened and sought a merger of Swat with Pakistan. Up until the merger, the state of Swat boasted of high social indicators, especially women's literacy rate which were significantly higher compared to the neighboring areas. The law and order situation was exemplary and there was a stable law and order situation.

Moreover, forests were protected, as a result of which timber extraction, which is one of the major sources of income for the region, was strictly monitored to maintain long-term sustainability. Since its merger with Pakistan, the Swat district has performed poorly in terms of social and economic indicators. No major investment has been made on the education and health sectors by the Pakistani state. Moreover, poor management of forests, which are the most important common property resource for the region, has led to deforestation beyond sustainable levels.

Successive governments have undertaken several reforms to limit timber extraction, and ceilings have been imposed in terms of the amount of timber extracted and exported. Nevertheless, implementation and enforcement of these reforms has been half-hearted, and widespread corruption in the forestry sector has allowed illegal logging activities to deplete this essential common resource.

In addition, tourist revenue, which formed a significant proportion of local income, has also been declining steadily. Extremism and militant activity has further exacerbated this problem in recent years, hence generating a vicious cycle. Consequently, local income has declined while unemployment has risen consistently.

The absence of social safety networks and proper social services has worsened this problem and has led to frustration among the local populace. The law and order situation has also been dismal and locals consider the process of seeking justice through law enforcement institutions to be slow and costly. This situation has led the Swati population to believe that the Pakistani state has been ineffective and redundant, and many reminisce about the golden years of princely rule today.

This political and more importantly, social vacuum paved way for Islamic extremism, as anti-government rhetoric propagated by these extremist elements appealed to the local populace. Thus the situation in Swat, and possibly in the rest of North West Frontier Province, presents a natural comparison to the case of Afghanistan, where the lack of an effective state presented a political vacuum which was eventually filled by none other than the Taliban.

Mullah Fazlullah and his clan adopted a clever strategy of targeting local women, a majority of whom are housewives, within in a largely male-dominated society. Their radio broadcasts educated women about the rights awarded to them by Islam and presented a parallel system of education to these women - one that includes knowledge about religion that can be acquired without stepping out of the home.

In the absence of an effective public education system, these women subscribed to the ideas presented by Mullah Fazlullah in his radio sermons to the extent that since the beginning of 2007, voluntary school drop out rate for females has been 2-3 per week in the Swat district.

Given this scenario, it is difficult to blame just the past five years of MMA rule in NWFP or the deployment of troops in the area for the rising militancy. The underlying reasons behind the subscription to extreme Islamic tendencies and the militant form these tendencies are adopting cannot be understood in isolation from social development in the region.

The current bluster surrounding the transition towards democracy in Pakistan has been coupled with tall claims about combating militancy in NWFP without the use of force. However, the extent to which these claims will be matched by real action is unpredictable. There is little evidence to suggest that exemplary state failure over the past three and half decades will be met with adequate central government attention in future. The strong social imperatives underwritten by a purist reading of Islam will  only make the task more challenging.


Barkha Shah is a Research Assistant to the Dean at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She has an MPhil (Development Studies) from the University of Cambridge.

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