The Pakistani government has released the senior-most leader of the pro-Taliban group that was behind the Malakand Accord, the agreement that put the Taliban in control over a wide region of Pakistan’s northwest.
Sufi Mohammed, the leader of the banned pro-Taliban Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammed [TNSM or the Movement for the Enforcement of Mohammed’s Law], and his wife and other family members were released after nearly two months of detention by an unnamed Pakistani security agency.
Sufi was reportedly “taken into protective custody” in Mirpur in Pakistan-held Kashmir more than two months ago, Dawn reported. He was reported missing at the onset of the fighting in Swat, Dir, and Buner, but the security forces have refused to comment if he was in detention.
The release of Sufi and his immediate family was confirmed by his son Rizwanullah and another close family member. He is reportedly residing in Peshawar, where other detained members of the TNSM have been taken.
Release may signal new negotiations
Sufi was set free while the military is still battling the Taliban in Swat and Dir, and is working to restore the government’s writ in Buner and Shangla in Pakistan’s insurgency-infested Northwest Frontier Province.
The timing of his release is curious, and may signal that a new round of negotiations is in the works. When Sufi’s capture was confirmed in mid-June, it was thought he might be used for future negotiations in Swat and the wider Malakand Division, a large region in the Northwest Frontier Province.
The military claimed that more than 1,500 Taliban fighters and 140 soldiers have been killed since fighting broke out in Swat, Dir, and Buner at the end of April. Pakistani officials have since announced that the region has been secured and urged the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons to return to their homes, but these calls have largely been ignored as fighting is still underway.
In the wake of the Malakand operation, the government has sought to round up the senior leadership of the TNSM. Four other of the senior-most members of the group have been detained since early June. A few days after their capture, two of them were killed during a Taliban ambush.
Muhammad Alam, the deputy leader of the TNSM, Maulana Said Wahab, a member of the group’s ruling shura, and spokesman Ameer Izzat Khan were detained in Dir on June 4. Sufi and two of his sons were reportedly arrested with these TNSM leaders, but the government denied the reports.
Two days later Alam and Khan were killed during a Taliban ambush on a police column that was transporting the men to Peshawar. On June 9, Iqbal Khan, the leader of the TNSM in Swat, was arrested in Peshawar.
Although security forces have had success in rounding up the TNSM’s senior leadership, the senior leaders of the Taliban continue to elude them. Of the 21 senior Swat Taliban leaders identified by the Pakistani government as wanted, none have been killed or captured. The military claims that the second and third tier leaders of the Swat Taliban have suffered significant losses.
Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, has stated several times that Swat Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah was either killed or captured. In his latest statement, Rehman said Fazlullah was seriously wounded and is surrounded, but the military refused to comment on such claims, putting the rumors in doubt.
Last weekend, the military said that a close aide to Fazlullah named Ehsan or Abu Jandal was killed.
US officials are concerned that Pakistan has failed to keep Sufi and other extremist leaders in prison.
“While Pakistan claims it is cracking down on extremists, note how Sufi Mohammed, Hafiz Saeed [the chief of the Lashkar-e-Taiba] and his aide, and Maulana Abdullah Aziz [the leader of the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad] have been cut loose,” a senior intelligence official told The Long War Journal.
“Pakistan can kill all of the foot soldiers it wants to in the northwest, but until the leaders like Sufi and Saeed are taken out of the game, the gains will be temporary.”
TNSM responsible for the failed peace agreement
Sufi Mohammed and the TNSM are responsible for the failed peace agreement under which the Pakistani government ceded control of a large swath of northwestern Pakistan to the Taliban, but which resulted ultimately in the ongoing military operation that has displaced more than 2 million people.
The agreement, known as the Malakand Accord, called for the withdrawal of the Pakistani Army from Swat, the release all Taliban prisoners, the withdrawal of any criminal cases against Taliban leaders and fighters, and the imposition of sharia in the Malakand Division, a region that encompasses more than one-third of the Northwest Frontier Province, including Swat, Dir, Buner, Chitral, and Malakand.
The TNSM is a front group for the Taliban. Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the Swat Taliban, is Sufi’s son-in-law, and the TNSM has fought US forces inside Afghanistan. The Musharraf government banned the TNSM and put Sufi under arrest. Sufi was released in late 2007 to negotiate a peace agreement with Taliban.
In April of this year, the TNSM spokesman admitted that the group can control the Taliban’s actions. “We have not asked the Taliban to take up arms, but the government would be held responsible for any resurgence of violence in Swat,” Izzat said while discussing the peace negotiations.
Sufi, who is supposed to be the impartial arbiter of the peace agreement, shed the façade of impartiality after defending the Taliban following a series of Taliban attacks and kidnappings on government security forces and government officials.
“The Taliban are doing nothing wrong,” Sufi said after the Taliban killed two soldiers in March. “The government is responsible for violations.”
The government continued to negotiate with Sufi and the Taliban, and unilaterally implemented legislation that allowed for the imposition of sharia, despite the Taliban’s repeated violations of the ceasefire.