Report by Zia Ur Rehman
The Friday Times
July 29 – Aug 04, 2011
Cross-border attacks show that Swat Taliban, who had fled to Afghanistan during the 2009 army operation, are now gaining foothold in Malakand
A graphic video footage was posted on the LiveLeak website on 18 July, showing militants executing 18 Pakistani policemen who were captured from Upper Dir. In the video, the Taliban militants first accuse the policemen of being enemies of God and of killing six children during the military operation in Swat, and then fire at the policemen, killing them all.
The policemen were captured on June 1 after around 300 Taliban militants crossed the border from Kunar province of Afghanistan and attacked police checkposts and villages in the Shaltalu area of Upper Dir, killing 75 people including 30 paramilitary and police personnel, according to locals and police officials. The video has not been attributed to a specific Taliban faction, but police officials and locals believe that the killings were carried out by the militants of Swat and Dir who had dispersed and fled to Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan during the military operation in 2009. They are now regrouping and trying to regain a foothold in the region. “In the video, the faces of militants were covered, but their Pashto accent clearly showed they belong to Swat or Dir,” a parliamentarian elected from Upper Dir told TFT.
In the past four months, 14 cross-border incursions allegedly carried out by Pakistani militants with the help of Afghan Taliban demonstrated the continued strength of the militants in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas, in spite of several recent Pakistani military operations and the presence of NATO troops across the border. Most of the attacks took place in Dir region while other incursions have occurred in Bajaur Agency, Mohmand Agency, Chitral and South Wazirstan Agency. Dozens of people, including security personnel and members of anti-Taliban Lashkars, have been killed. The most recent attack occurred on July 24 when more than 50 militants crossed the border from Afghanistan and stormed the Kitkot village in Mamond Tehsil in Bajaur Agency. Residents of the bordering areas, especially Upper Dir and Bajaur, are now asking the government not to install additional security posts in their areas for fear of new attacks.
The government believes Pakistani Taliban have hideouts in Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan provinces from where NATO had pulled out its troops. “Terrorists from Swat had found safe havens these areas in Afghanistan and are launching cross-border attacks inside Pakistan from there,” Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) director general Maj Gen Athar Abass told BBC Urdu. Many security analysts believe that militants led by Maulvi Fazlullah, Maulvi Faqir Muhammad and Hafizullah (heads of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in Swat, Bajaur Agency and Dir region respectively) who fled to Afghanistan during the 2009 military operation, have started returning and are now targeting their rivals, especially the security forces. The assertion was seemingly corroborated by the TTP leaders when they claimed responsibility for the attacks in Dir. Omar Hassan Ahrabi, a spokesman for TTP in Malakand division, said his organisation had carried out the attack “with Afghan allies”.
The attacks also show that the militants are not only regrouping but also adopting a new strategy of large-scale attacks on government and security forces. TTP Bajaur leader Faqir Muhammad, previous thought dead, recently told The News that his group, in collaboration with Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban, had changed its strategy and would now focus on large-scale attacks on state targets and security agencies like it did in Dir.
Hafizullah, who hails from Nihag Darra in Upper Dir, heads the TTP in Dir region, but Qari Abdul Jabbar from Timergara is emerging as a new leader, said a TTP militant from the region. He said Jabbar heads a small group of around 400 militants chased out of Malakand during the military operation. Elders and police officials in Upper Dir say militants are hiding in and operating from Kunar and Nuristan with the help of Qari Ziaur Rehman, a key commander of Al Qaeda who hails from Kunar. Rehman operates in Pakistan’s Bajaur and Mohmand tribal regions as well as in Kunar and Nuristan in Afghanistan.
“The presence of the militants in three areas in Upper and Lower Dir has already been reported: the Osherai pass that links Swat with Upper Dir, Barawal that borders with Afghanistan’s Kunar province, and the Maidan area of Lower Dir that borders with Bajaur Agency”, said Khadim Hussain, a security expert who has worked extensively on militancy issues in the Tribal Areas.
Locals claim that the militants have begun roaming in their hills, 12 schools in the area have been reportedly destroyed, and many pro-government people have been killed in the last few months. That sends shockwaves through the region and belies the military’s claims of having cleared the area.
Instead of weakening the militants, the army operation seems to have shifted the hub of militancy from settled areas of Swat and Dir to the border areas, said Bahram Khan, a leader of anti-Taliban militia in Upper Dir.
The alliance between the leadership of Al Qaeda, the TTP, Afghan Taliban and other national and transnational militant groups might be looking for a new but familiar safe haven in Malakand before starting a military offensive in North Waziristan, Khadim Hussain told the TFT. He said the recent cross-border attacks may be precursors to a battle between the security forces and the Taliban for the social and administrative control of Malakand division after high-profile targets were targeted by Drone attacks in FATA.
Afghan authorities have also expressed concerns over infiltration from the Dir and Chitral areas of Pakistan to Afghan provinces of Nuristan ad Kunar. “Both Afghan and Pakistani Taliban from the bordering areas are regularly attacking the Afghan security officials and people in Nuristan’s Bargmatal and Kamdesh districts,” Nuristan governor Jamaluddin Badar told Afghan media.
Security officials say the militants will not be able to regain control of Dir. Instead, they will continue the hit-and-run tactics, an ideal guerrilla-warfare approach in the rocky terrain. There will be significant impact on the neighbouring Bajaur Agency, Swat and Chitral districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Kunar and Nuristan provinces of Afghanistan. Dir will be a strategic base for attacks in these areas and a safe haven for militants fleeing military operations in these regions.
Zia Ur Rehman is a journalist and a researcher who works on militancy and human rights. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org