The killing of a school van driver in Swat on October 10 evoked spontaneous protests. The incident, in which two students were also injured, was reminiscent of the attack on Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai a decade ago. If Malala’s incident turned the tables against the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), last week’s attack should ring alarm bells about the return of the dreaded religious group. However, the silver lining was the overwhelming response of thousands of protesters against the TTP and other religious bigots striving to get their way through the gun barrel.
Just a decade ago, the TTP operatives used to hold sway over Swat and Malakand divisions by holding courts and openly punishing the people. The local administration looked helpless as the state abdicated its writ to the religious bigots over the years. A reign of terror was visible all around; people were forced to obey the dictates of the Taliban while women bore the brunt of their brutalities.
The TTP reportedly denied the attack on the school van for obvious reasons, while no other group has accepted responsibility for the attack. Barrister Mohammad Ali Saif, the KP government’s spokesperson and a member of the governmental team negotiating with the TTP, claimed that the main TTP was not involved, but militant groups opposed to the talks were active against the government in the province. He further claimed anyone of the seven splinter groups of the Taliban, opposed to talks with the government, may have been responsible for the attack. The authenticity of Barrister Saif’s claim about the ‘innocence’ of the TTP is open to debate. He, nevertheless, represents a viewpoint in the country that TTP is a reality and can only be appeased by making it a stakeholder in the national mainstream.
However, the overwhelming view in the country considers TTP or its affiliates as extremists and terrorists with the sole objective of implementing their dictates through coercion while using Islam as a pretext. This approach is supported by the established religious parties in the country, such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) and Jamaat-e-Islami, which have adopted a constitutional route to power and have been active in national politics even before Pakistan’s independence. These parties have played an active role in shaping the constitutional process in the country and ensuring that the country’s laws are not in contravention of the Islamic injunctions. Therefore, in the presence of authentic religious parties, there is hardly any room for religious bigots to hold the country for ransom.
The spontaneous outrage of the people in Swat, Mingora, Battagram and adjoining districts, as well as in Haripur, was unprecedented and presaged the political transformation that has taken place in these regions during the past decade. The protest rallies represented a broad spectrum of society, including students, teachers, lawyers, doctors, transporters, and youth. They unequivocally declared their hatred of the brutalities of the Taliban, especially the targeting innocent school children.
The striking feature of demonstrations in Swat was that all political shades in the area participated in the protest. It was a clear message to the Taliban or their affiliates to stay away from their areas. The leaders and workers of Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), ANP, PPP, PTI, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) and Jamaat-e-Islami participated in the demonstrations. Veteran leader Afrasiab Khattak, ANP leader Aimal Wali Khan, PTM chief Manzoor Pashteen, and Swat Olasi Pasoon President Fawad Khan were the prominent participants in the protest meeting.
There are lingering questions regarding the resurgence of the TTP in the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), Swat and Malakand regions. Since the beginning of this year, the TTP cadres have started attacking the border areas; they mainly targeted the FC and Army personnel deployed in the area. There were reports that till June this year, over 150 officers and jawans embraced martyrdom at the hands of TTP attacks. It all happened when they were enjoying the support and shelter of the Afghan Taliban.
The reports of ‘peace talks’ between the TTP and Pakistani officials through the Afghan Taliban mediation made everyone guess whether a TTP revival was in the offing. The TTP-inspired leaks alluded to the possibility of a general amnesty for the TTP cadres. However, renewed attacks by the TTP show little progress in the talks. It also reinforces the concerns about the outfit enjoying the support of the Afghan Taliban. Prima facie, the TTP is reluctant to declare its allegiance to Pakistan’s constitution and insists on the revival of the erstwhile FATA. More importantly, the outfit’s leadership refuses to surrender its arms and face the law of the land, especially about killing people, including the innocent children of APS Peshawar.
From the diplomatic perspective, the Afghan Taliban owe an explanation to Pakistan for sheltering the TTP cadres and not controlling their movement along the Pak-Afghan border. While it plays the role of a peace broker between Pakistan and TTP, the ideological moorings of the two religious militias are identical. On the political plane, the Afghan Taliban are unlikely to play the role of an honest broker. Yet another vital factor worth remembering is that the TTP owes allegiance (Baiyat) to Mullah Haibtullah Akhund, which binds the latter to offer protection if the former so desires. So far, the Afghan Taliban’s record shows that they have been soft on the TTP.
There could be various reasons for the Afghan Taliban going soft on the TTP, the foremost being the danger of Islamic State- Khorasan Province (ISK) luring the TTP to its ranks. Second, the hardliners in the Taliban may support the TTP to create a niche inside Pakistan if the Government of Pakistan turns against the Afghan Taliban. Third, in case of successful negotiations between GOP and TTP, the Afghan Taliban will create a ‘strategic depth’ inside Pakistan, at least in the former tribal areas of the country. However, the above possibilities have only conjectural value until the parleys conclude.
Equally important is the disappointment of China, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over reports that extremist groups from these countries are taking shelter under the Afghan Taliban’s protection. The killing of Ayman Al-Zawahiri has raised alarms in the US and western capitals about the sincerity of the Taliban in holding Al-Qaeda and ISK to account under the Doha Agreement and the international obligations imposed by the UN Security Council in its various resolutions.
Whatever may be the outcome of talks between GoP and TTP, the Swat protests should serve as a lesson to all and sundry. The awakening amongst the people about their choices and way of life cannot be refashioned by force. Otherwise, dread the ‘power of the powerless’, as famously said by Czech leader Vaclav Havel in his famous essay in 1978.
The writer is a former ambassador, currently working as a Senior Research Fellow at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI)