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Pakistani Lawmaker Says Situation In Swat Not Black And White

Haider Ali Khan at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague
PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- The secretary of foreign affairs of Pakistan's Awami National Party, which heads the coalition government in the violence-plagued Northwest Frontier Province, has been touring European this week, providing insight into the situation in the region.

Haider Ali Khan's unique perspective comes from his position as a representative in the region's provincial assembly for Swat, a once-peaceful tourist haven that in the past year has become a center of Taliban insurgency. He spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique.

RFE/RL: The Swat district is known for its natural beauty and ancient Buddhist heritage. Can you tell us about its people and politics?

Haider Ali Khan: Swat was a principality for a long time. Baacha Sahib [the king], Miangul Abdul Wudud, established that system in the 1920s. He was succeeded by his well-educated son Miangul Jahan Zeb. People were very happy in that system and its was very peaceful. Even Queen Elizabeth, who visited Swat then, was impressed by its beauty and called it the "Switzerland of Asia."

When [Swat] was voluntarily merged into Pakistan in 1979, it was more peaceful than other regions of Pakistan because it was urbanized. Mingora [Swat's main city] had a well-established silk industry. When Swat joined Pakistan it had the highest literacy rate, particularly among women. [People benefited from a good economy], as tourism gradually turned into an industry.

RFE/RL: If Swat was so peaceful, how then did it turn into a center of extremist violence?

Khan: [In the early 1990s, local cleric] Maulana Sufi Muhammad started a movement called Tehreek-e Nifaz-e Shariat-e Muhammadi [movement for the implementation of Muhammad's Shari'a]. Some 10 percent of the local population supported that movement, as it was peaceful.

But after the U.S. attacks [against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda] in Afghanistan, many of his followers went to Afghanistan to wage jihad. Many of them never returned.

The current phase of [militancy] began with an FM radio station. Maulana [Fazlullah, the leader of the Taliban in Swat] and his friends used their FM radio to mobilize people and spread their message. Some downtrodden classes found his message of [Islamic justice] appealing. Other people [militants] from the [eastern Pakistani province of Punjab] and elsewhere also joined that movement. It gradually turned into an armed insurgency.

The [Pakistani] military started its campaign during the caretaker government [in November 2007]. Then we opposed the military operation on the grounds that this problem cannot be resolved by force. And we can only solve it though negotiations.

RFE/RL: You said that the idea of justice was appealing for people. Do you think that this enabled people to look for justice?

Khan: PATA [Provincially Administered Tribal Areas, an administrative arrangement that includes Swat] has a different legal system compared to the rest of Pakistan. We have [a special law] called PATA Regulation -- the Pakistani Constitution and criminal law also applies here and formerly we had a justice system rooted in Islamic Shari'a and its effects still linger on.

So we had three different legal systems operating at the same time but nobody could get cheap and speedy justice. Litigation here is often very costly and it usually takes a very long time. Sometimes court cases go on for generations -- from father to children and grandchildren.

Our people are impoverished and they cannot afford to pursue their cases every day. Nobody can deny that corruption is endemic. These were the factors that led to transforming peoples' grievances [against the system] into rage. That hate gradually turned into a form of violence.

Peace With The Militants

The Awami National Party-led government concluded two peace agreements with pro-Taliban militants in Swat and the neighboring Dir district after assuming power earlier in the year. While your agreement with Maulana Sufi Muhammad in Dir is still intact, the agreement in Swat couldn't hold and your party has became the target of extremist violence. Why?

Khan: We are sticking to the promises we made. [But] after the peace agreements were enforced, violence slowly crept back, targeted killings began, and the process of blowing up schools started. During our negotiations with the militants, we asked them who was behind those acts. They always denied any involvement.

In the meantime, some [anti-Taliban] military operations were going on in Waziristan. [In August] a violent incident in the [southern] district of Hangu forced the provincial government to send military forces there to protect people.

After that the militants announced that they were scrapping all their agreements with the provincial government and that they were restarting their armed movement. They also demanded from the provincial government that it should resign in five days or else it would be targeted.

RFE/RL: There is an impression in the West that the ongoing insurgencies in Pakistan and Afghanistan are a Pashtun uprising. During your European tour, what message did you convey to counter such impressions?

Khan: The situation we are now facing is rooted in the Afghan war, which some people called jihad during the Cold War. Today we are dealing with the repercussions and negative consequences of that war and [as a result] the Pashtuns now are struggling for their very survival.

The land of the Pashtuns was the battlefield for the [last war] of the Cold War. While others benefited from it, the Pashtuns were destroyed -- 3 million people were killed, millions more were displaced, and hundreds of thousands maimed.

Again, within 25 years, another global war in the name of the "war on terrorism" was imposed on the Pashtuns. Today, an impression is being spread around the world that the Pashtuns -- as a nation -- are terrorists, extremists, and all of them are labeled Taliban.

What we want people to understand is that the Pashtuns are the worst victims of this war. They all are Muslims but they are not terrorists. They are peaceful people, [many among them] believe in nonviolence, and they are a democratic people. The Pashtuns are underdeveloped, but their homeland has abundant natural resources.