Mingora, Pakistan – Fazal Hayat’s blood lies pooled on the alley floor – the last remnants of a brutal attack that took his life in the small village of Qambar, in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.
“When we got there, towards the shops, there were four or five people gathered. We asked ‘Who is it, who is it?’ They wouldn’t answer us. When I put my mobile phone on and shone the light towards the body, I saw it was my brother lying there, with eight or nine bullets in him,” Irfan Ali Khan told Al Jazeera at his elder brother’s funeral the next day on November 13.
Contacted two days after the attack, police officials told Al Jazeera that Hayat’s murder was likely the result of a personal rivalry related to a property dispute from several years ago.
They seemed unaware that the killing had been claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in a statement sent to the media hours after the killing in Qambar.
How it is possible for such killings to take place when the army says they have complete ‘control’ over Swat?
Hayat, a local political leader, was targeted because he was a member of the local anti-Taliban Village Defence Committee (VDC), the TTP said, making him the latest in a series of attacks against VDC members in Swat.
This year alone, at least 26 VDC members have been killed in targeted attacks across the valley, which was ruled by the Taliban for several years before successive military operations in 2007 and 2009, sandwiching a short-lived government-Taliban peace deal, drove them out and re-established the government’s writ in late 2009.
Today, military and police officials told Al Jazeera that the Taliban is unable to carry out major attacks against the state in Swat, which is under the “complete control” of the government. More than 2,100 troops (or approximately one combat brigade) remain deployed here, five years after the military operation ended, in order to maintain internal security, military spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Aqeel Malik told Al Jazeera.
The majority of those, he said, are deployed at the hundreds of checkpoints and security posts scattered across major roads in the valley.
The checkpoints, however, appear to be doing little to stem the flow of Taliban killings, or to help in apprehending those responsible.
“Once the Taliban’s writ was ended here, then the targeted killings began. Now the Taliban are not visible, but they still have a network. Targeted killings are a face of their guerrilla war,” said Khwaja Khan, a local political leader who is on the Taliban’s hit list.
Khan said it is “amazing” that attacks have occurred in close proximity to checkpoints – as was Hayat’s killing on November 12 – and that the security forces’ response tactics appear to be ineffective.
“When there is an attack, they immediately cordon off the area and impose a curfew. So the result is that the attackers get away, but normal people there have to face many difficulties,” he told Al Jazeera at his home in Mingora, where he says he lives under guard, and seldom leaves due to the threats against his life.
Gulab Sher, another VDC member under threat, asked the question a different way: “How it is possible for such killings to take place when the army says they have complete ‘control’ over Swat?”
Targeted for collaborating
Zahid Khan, a tribal elder and member of the Swat Qaumi Jirga (SQJ), a district-wide committee of anti-Taliban leaders, has survived three attempts on his life. The last, in August 2012, saw him shot in the back of his neck but, miraculously, he survived.
“We are being targeted [by the Taliban] so that the people are silenced, so that we live in fear and terror, so that those who raise their voices have their tongues cut out,” he said.
Khan praised the army for having ended the rule of Mullah Fazlullah – then the leader of the Swat Taliban and today the TTP’s national leader – in 2009, but said he finds its role in maintaining security in the post-operation phase lacking.
“When people take out their guns to protect themselves, they are fired upon by the army,” he said, adding that the killers appear to be able to attack with impunity.
This appears to be a common complaint among those on the Taliban’s hit list, with several members of the VDCs and SQJ telling Al Jazeera they were restricted from carrying weapons to protect themselves.
|An anti-Taliban leader from Mingora, Swat, reads a death threat from the Taliban that was recently delivered to his door [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]|
The military, meanwhile, insists that the fact that the Taliban has been reduced to targeted attacks, in an area where suicide bombings, IED explosions, and beheadings had been commonplace from 2007 to 2009, is a victory for the state.
The shift in tactics, however, has been showing results. Although no official figures exist, credible estimates from VDC and SQJ members indicate that more than 100 people have been killed by the Taliban for collaborating with the government and military in recent years. That figure does not include the many unsuccessful attacks, such as the one on Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize co-winner, in 2012.
Malik said that the Taliban has focused on these tribal leaders because they are “soft targets”, and that they use local, homegrown fighters in order to carry out their attacks.
“[They target VDC members] because these people worked closely with law enforcement agencies [and the army] in order to end terrorism. So they take revenge against them, and they are also able to show their presence, that we are still active here.”
By Malik’s estimates, there are approximately 3,000 VDC members in Swat, of whom 22 are highest on the Taliban’s hit-list, according to intelligence gained from captured TTP fighters in Swat.
The police, meanwhile, say the issue is being blown out of proportion.
“You are over-blowing this targeted killing issue. There are different motives. Every society has crime. So this is also a type of crime,” said divisional Police Chief Abdullah Khan, when asked if his department was placing a priority on finding those responsible for the killings. According to Khan, Swat is “the most peaceful region in all of Pakistan these days”.
His junior officers also seemed hesitant to credit the Taliban’s campaign of targeted killings with the murders of the VDC members, preferring instead to blame tribal rivalries.
“My opinion is that it is not necessarily a targeted killing every time that a VDC member is killed,” said Gulzar Khan, the Swat police’s chief of investigations. “Every person has their own enmities or issues – whether to do with property, honour or others. And according to our investigations, what we have found is that […] there have been monetary issues behind several of the ‘targeted killings’.”
Of the 91 murder cases registered in Swat this year, the police say only nine (9.9 percent) were carried out by the Taliban, while VDC and SQJ members say that figure is at least 26 (29 percent).
Few of those cases have resulted in arrests, although in September the military announced the high-profile arrests of a gang of 10 men involved in Malala Yousafzai’s 2012 shooting. According to the military, this gang was also involved in targeting VDC members in the months following the Yousafzai shooting.
‘The net is closing’
Despite the police officers’ position on the killings, for those in the Taliban’s crosshairs, the threat is very real.
“I feel like the net is closing around me,” says Sher, a local political leader who has worked closely with the army in the Rang Malah area of Mingora since 2009. “I basically stay at home most of the time. When I leave the house, I have a pistol with me. I offer my prayers before leaving the house, and recite verses from the Quran having to do with God’s protection.”
“I can’t leave the house. I have left my business, I just earn a living through properties I have rented out,” says Zahid Khan, the SQJ leader. “My social life is over. I can’t attend funerals or weddings. When I leave Mingora, I do so fearfully, hiding and without telling anyone… I am a captive in my own home.”
Khan added that he feels abandoned by the army, due to the SQJ’s criticism of the military’s continuing role in Swat despite the conclusion of its military operation. “We do not have guns or artillery, or knives in our hands, we just have the ability to make demands [through the SQJ]. We have demanded our constitutional rights,” he said.
We do not have guns or artillery, or knives in our hands, we just have the ability to make demands. We have demanded our constitutional rights.
Asked why he doesn’t give up his continuing work with the army, Sher’s answer is perhaps instructive of the realities of living in Swat. “If I leave this work, the killers will come even faster.”
The attacks on anti-Taliban leaders who have worked with the government and military in the past are also not isolated to Swat, argues Sartaj Khan, an independent researcher who has studied these attacks since 2007. The Pakistani military has worked through anti-Taliban VDCs and tribal militias (known locally as lashkars) across the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
The Pakistani military often touts Swat as a success story, but Malik conceded that the continuing attacks show that “terrorism is yet to be eliminated” from the valley, despite the fact that he lauds the peace brought to Swat.
For those on the Taliban hit list, however, Swat appears far from peaceful. Three days after Hayat’s killing in a Qambar alleyway, Bakht Zarin Khan was killed by Taliban gunmen in a similar attack in the Tahirabad area of Mingora.
“They say there is peace here. But there can only be true peace when these targeted killings stop,” said Gulab Sher. “How can you say there is peace when I am not safe? This isn’t peace.”
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim