Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) is progressively coming under the grip of Islamic extremism. One of the more severe manifestations of this trend has been the outbreak of intense fighting in the Swat District, situated in the north of the NWFP. Since the end of October an open war has ensued between the militants, led by a radical cleric Maulana Fazlullah, fighting for the enforcement of the Sharia law in the region and the security forces. The militants on a rampage since the beginning of this year unleashed havoc following the Lal Masjid operation with at least four suicide attacks against the security forces in July itself. The Pakistani army, at first, launched aerial attacks through helicopter gunships in late October to target militant hideouts and training camps; but, due to continuing unrest in the region and large-scale surrender of the paramilitary forces, the army stepped up its operations and launched an all-out ground offensive in end-November. Through sustained operations, it has succeeded in restoring the state's writ in many parts of the Swat valley, including Fazlullah's base at Imam Dheri on 28 November. The militants have been on the run since then. However, notwithstanding the immediate success of the military operation, the significance of the Swat conflict remains high for Pakistan.
First, the fighting in Swat represents the first all-out combat between pro-Taliban militants and government forces outside of Pakistan's tribal areas known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) (also part of NWFP), that have served as the training ground for insurgents and the fleeing Taliban elements since 9/11. The Swat district is one of '24 'settled' districts of NWFP administered by the provincial government. While Taliban encroachment has been taking place gradually in other settled districts such as Tank, Bannu, and Hangu bordering the tribal areas, the Swat conflict is the first to acquire such intensity. Moreover, the Swat conflict represents a distinct eastward spread of religious extremism, threatening, in turn to spillover into the troubled Northern Areas of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir that shares part of its southern border with Swat.
Second, the conflict signals the rise of the banned militant outfit Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) led by Fazlullah. The TNSM, founded in 1989 by Sufi Mohammad, an activist of the religious party Jamaat-e-Islami, witnessed its peak during 1994-95 when it took to the streets in large numbers in the Malakand region (which included the Swat district till 2002) demanding the enforcement of the Sharia law. Again, following the launch of the US war on terror in 2001, Sufi Mohammad is supposed to have sent thousands of fighters (approximately 10,000) to fight the Northern Alliance government in Afghanistan. While many fighters perished in the war, many others, including Sufi Mohammad, were arrested on their return to Pakistan.
The outfit resurfaced under the leadership of Fazlullah who has since been propagating his extremist views through at least two dozen FM radio channels run by him. Helped considerably by a local and provincial administration reluctant to antagonize him, the TNSM successfully terrorized the people of Swat through activities such as closing of girl's schools, bombing of music and video shops, attacks on barbers, and protests against NGOs carrying out development work. Since the onset of clashes, Fazlullah's force, with a strength of roughly 4,500 men, has been able to carry out powerful attacks against the security forces, including in high-security zones, and engage in hand-to-hand combat with the security forces in several instances. The ferocity displayed by Fazlullah's men is largely responsible for the dominant perception among the locals in Swat that the retreat by the militants is but a strategy, and that they will strike again when the situation is ripe. Given the ability of the TNSM to resurface with renewed strength, it continues to pose a grave threat to the security of Pakistan.
Finally, the conflict in Swat Valley acquires significance because it reflects the growing influence of al Qaeda in the province. While Fazlullah has openly stated that "Osama bin laden and Mullah Omar are his heroes," this is further substantiated by the large-scale presence of 'foreign fighters' in the Swat conflict, and is widely acknowledged by the locals who say the militants speak a different dialect from theirs. This goes to suggest that the jihad being waged in the region does not represent an uprising from within and lends credence to the prospect of it being orchestrated by the Taliban with the objective of extending their operational base beyond the tribal areas to the northern areas of the northwest.
The Swat offensive therefore, underscores the pressing security concerns of Pakistan, both in terms of the growing reach of Islamic extremism and its mounting lethality. While the security forces have established their writ in large parts of Swat, that in no way implies a defeat of the militants. It may be relevant to point out that despite the presence of over 80,000 troops in the FATA area since 2002, the Taliban continues to exercise influence in the region. The government must, therefore, follow up military operations with adequate political and development measures to retain control of the area.