A Taliban fighter stands outside a police station in Matta. The sign states the police station is under Taliban control. AFP photo via Dawn. Click to view.
The Taliban appear to have gained the upper hand in the fight against the Pakistani military in the settled districts of Swat and Shangla in the Northwest Frontier Province. While the Pakistan military claims to have killed up to 150 Taliban since operations began late last week, the government sent a telling message to the Taliban by releasing Sufi Mohammed, the leader of a virulent segment of the Pakistani Taliban.
Sufi Mohammed is one of the most dangerous Taliban leaders in the Northwest Frontier Province as head of the outlawed Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM – the Movement for the Implementation of Mohammad’s Sharia Law). He is said to have “close links with the administration of the Lal Masjid,” according to Sharif Virk, the chief of police for the Northwest Frontier Province as well as senior al Qaeda leaders.
The TNSM is known as the “Pakistani Taliban” and is the group behind the ideological inspiration for the Afghan Taliban. The TNSM sent over 10,000 fighters into Afghanistan to fight US forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001. Sufi was jailed by the Pakistani government after the TNSM was banned. Last week it was reported Sufi left government custody to be treated in a hospital in Peshawar.
Time Magazine reported Sufi was released “in hopes that he can help calm the situation” in Swat and Shangla, the neighboring district the Taliban overran last week. Sufi’s release was endorsed by General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the Director General of military operations in the region. “Shuja calls it part of the ‘political effort’ needed to accompany the military campaign,” Time reported. “Brute use of force alone would only take us backwards,” said Shuja.
Sirajuddin, the Taliban spokesman for Maulana Fazlullah, the Swat leader of the TNSM and Sufi’s son-in-law, stressed the importance of Sufi to the Taliban. “He is our leader and very dear to all of us, but our struggle for the implementation of a true Islamic system will not be affected,” said Sirajuddin. “Maulana Sufi is demanding the same. It is good that the government has released him; now it should start work on the implementation of Sharia.”
The release of Sufi is a clear sign the Pakistani government and the military are prepared to cut a deal with the Taliban in Swat and Shangla. The formation of a “peace jirga” is another. On November 18, Dawn reported local tribal leaders and members of the political parties have formed a peace jirga to end the fighting in Swat.
“A jirga of elders and political leaders requested both the sides to cease fire,” Dawn reported over the weekend. “It urged the government to start talks with the militants. The participants said the government should implement the Shariat Act and Nizam-i-Adal regulations. The jirga convened by Syed Akber Shah Lala, cousin of provincial caretaker minister Mohammad Ali Shah Lala, was attended by former MNAs [Ministers of the National Assembly] and leaders of political parties.”
The Pakistani military continues to tout high body counts in Swat and Shangla as evidence it is succeeding in the districts. Major General Waheed Arshad claimed over 150 Taliban have been killed since fighting began in Swat. “Our offensive against militants has been continuing since last night and there are reports that 20 to 30 more militants have been killed,” said Arshad. Yesterday the military said 12 Taliban were killed and 40 wounded in strikes in Swat and Shangla.
The Taliban disputes the casualties sited by the Pakistani military. In an interview with Time, Sirajuddin said the numbers are “totally rubbish. Only ten of our jihadis have been killed.” In the past, the Pakistani military has inflated Taliban casualties while understating its own.
The military said it has mobilized 15,000 troops for a major offensive in Swat. But these troops have yet to be used in Swat, where air and artillery are primarily being used. “In Shangla we are using ground troops, and (elsewhere) in Swat we are using artillery and helicopter gunships,” said Arshad.