Law students and law graduates in Pakistan are reporting for JURIST on events in that country impacting its legal system. Rabia Shuja holds an LLM in International Human Rights Law from Griffith College, Dublin and is Chief Correspondent for JURIST in Pakistan. She reports from Islamabad.
Two weeks ago, on October 10th, a day after the 10th anniversary of the shooting of Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), unidentified armed men opened fire on a school bus in this country’s Swat valley district, injuring two students and killing the driver, 33-year-old Hussain Ahmed. Despite reports suggesting the incident was a domestic dispute, the country feared in light of the attack’s similarity to the 2012 TTP attack on Malala Yousafzai what locals have been saying for months: that the TTP has returned to Swat.
The TTP’s return to the northwestern region of Pakistan may be attributed to the Afghan Taliban seizing power in Afghanistan in 2021. Although Pakistani politicians and military officials initially considered the Afghan Taliban’s victory a strategic win, it soon became apparent that it also provided an opening for the TTP to initiate a new spate of attacks against the State.
Since 2014, the TTP – who had been driven out of Pakistan following successive military campaigns – had been effectively incapacitated. However, things began to change following the Doha agreement in 2020. The fall of Kabul galvanized the TTP, which claimed responsibility for 87 attacks in 2021, killing 158 people – an 84% increase in attacks in comparison to 2020. The group also claimed 42 attacks in January of this year. Amidst the onslaught of assaults against security forces, Pakistan pressed the Taliban in Afghanistan to prevent the TTP from carrying out attacks inside Pakistan. The Taliban leaders offered to mediate talks between Pakistan and TTP, advising the government to directly address their grievances.
Experts warned the government against entering into peace talks, fearing it would legitimize the group and make it harder to contain the militancy. Mohsin Dawar, a member of the National Assembly from North Waziristan, argued that striking a deal with the TTP would only strengthen the organization and help them carry out their militant campaign more effectively. Past negotiations with the group also suggest that there is no guarantee that the TTP will honor its agreements. The government has made several agreements with the group in the past, including one in 2008 with the Swat Taliban. The government not only agreed to withdraw troops from the area but also released high-ranking Taliban soldiers. In return, the TTP vowed to end attacks on security forces and government officials. However, the deal fell apart the following year, with the Taliban threatening to launch suicide attacks across Pakistan, which led to the army launching the Swat Operation in 2009.
Despite such warnings, Pakistan began negotiations in October of last year. In June it seemed that a peace deal was imminent when the militant group declared an indefinite cease-fire. Reports indicated that the government agreed to release hundreds of TTP prisoners and to withdraw the majority of its troops stationed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). They also agreed to implement Shari’a law in certain areas of northwestern Pakistan. However, the two sides reached a deadlock in relation to retracting the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) merger with KP. In September, following suspected TTP attacks in Pakistan, and the State targeting TTP hideouts in Afghanistan, the indefinite ceasefire was called to an end – leaving the country shrouded in uncertainty.
In the past few months there have been murmurs that hundreds of TTP fighters have been returning to KP, including to its former stronghold, Swat. The resurgence of the TTP in KP has invoked anger amongst its people who are no strangers to the brutality of the Pakistani Taliban. This is especially true in Swat valley, which was under siege for 2 years. Under the Taliban, rights and freedoms were effectively abrogated, young girls were banned from going to school, various institutions were forced to shut down, and men and women were openly flogged. Life under TTP rule was riddled with bomb blasts, targeted killings, harrassment, and obscene amounts of extortion.
Since the Taliban’s return, the residents of Swat claim they have gained control through extorting locals, establishing checkpoints, kidnapping security forces, and targeted killings, including the roadside bombing this past September that claimed the lives of 8 people, including two police men and the head of the village peace committee, Idrees Khan. Having borne the brunt of violence during the height of extremism and the subsequent military operations against it, the people of KP, in an attempt to stop history from repeating itself, have staged numerous anti-Taliban protests.
In response to the growing concern of locals, the army’s media wing released a statement, acknowledging that although some armed men had crossed the border from Afghanistan and settled in the mountains between Swat and Dir, the claims regarding the TTP’s presence in the country were exaggerated and misleading. The military’s denial angered lawyers, activists, and civil society in KP, many of whom claimed that the government has turned a blind eye to the emerging threat.
However, the attack on the school bus triggered a wave of protests across Swat so large that the media and authorities were forced to take notice. Protestors demanded that authorities crack down on “anti-peace elements” in the area and called for the arrest of the culprits behind the attack. Relatives of the driver killed in the attack refused to bury him until the government took swift action. They also warned that they would march to the federal capital if the authorities failed to meet their demands. The demonstration sent a clear message to the government – that the people of Swat rejected the Taliban.
Politicians and human rights organizations also condemned the attack. Mohsin Dawar, who has routinely warned the government of the imminent re-emergence of the Taliban, tweeted that the attack in Swat “Should serve as a wake-up call for the state that appears to be losing its writ in Swat once again.” He further stated that “The people of Swat have been protesting against terrorism but their voices are being ignored. Pashtuns are being thrown to the wolves again.” The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan also criticized security forces for being ‘short-sighted and callous’ for trivializing the threat from militants, despite growing concerns from residents.
The scale of the protests, coupled with the outrage on social media resulted in both: coverage from mainstream media and a response from the authorities. The Swat police force held talks with protestors and assured them that they would arrest those responsible for the attack. Following successful negotiations with the local administration, the demonstration was called off. On Thursday KP Inspector General Moazzam Jah Ansari claimed that the situation in Swat was under control and there were no terrorists present in the area. He also claimed that the school van attack was a domestic dispute and not an act of terrorism.
Despite the KP Police’s denial of TTP’s presence, as recently as last Wednesday KP Minister Atif Khan allegedly received a letter from the TTP threatening to kill him if they did not receive Rs 8 million within three days. Although the TTP has denied involvement, this incident corroborates multiple stories of extortion of prominent businessmen and entrepreneurs reported in the area.
Moreover, ministers, service chiefs and heads of intelligence agencies attended a National Security Committee (NSC) meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, where they vowed to combat rising terrorism in KP by reviving counterterrorism mechanisms. Thus, after months of ambivalence, the top brass of the government finally acknowledged the growing security threat. The NSC agreed to restore the central apex committee, and revitalize the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA). NACTA will work with provincial Counter-Terrorism Departments (CTDs) and play a central role, departing from the previous precedent of having the armed forces take the lead.
The protests in Swat seem to have been a turning point – bringing the threat of the TTP into the nation’s consciousness and pushing state institutions to provide a more cohesive response to the emerging threat. Although the government’s most recent response is encouraging, Defense Minister Khwaja Asif also stated that peaceful means would be employed in dealing with the Taliban, and force would only be used as a last resort. However, there are various issues with such an approach. Firstly, if prompt and decisive action is not taken against the impending threat, it may eventually spread to other major cities, including the Capital. The country is already in a precarious position, dealing with numerous political and economic crises. It cannot afford to carry out another large scale military operation. Its previous campaigns against the TTP led to the loss of thousands of civilians and soldiers, caused wide-scale destruction, and displaced nearly 1.2 million people. Moreover, peace talks with the terrorist organisation have proven to be futile. Even if negotiations between the government and the TTP resume, it is highly unlikely that the violence will end. Furthermore, the notion that the State may offer amnesty to members of the TTP is troubling, and signifies a lack of accountability for terrorists who have wreaked havoc on the country for more than a decade. The government must be resolute in its response to the TTP and no longer leave its people, especially those in KP, at the mercy of terrorists.