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Origins of the violence in Swat Valley

Extremist elements in Swat have been urging their parents to send their children to madrassahs.
(Kamila Hyat/IRIN)

Taliban insurgents have announced an indefinite ceasefire in the troubled Swat Valley of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Pakistan army has halted its operations in the area; however, there are concerns the peace deal might not last. IRIN answers FAQs about the background to the violence:

Where is Swat?

The mountain valley of Swat, covering 10,360 sqkm, is about 170km north-east of the NWFP capital, Peshawar, and about 160km north-west of Islamabad. With its clean river, open fields and forests, tourism has traditionally been the main source of revenue for many of its 1.8 million people, most of whom are ethnic Pashtuns.

What is the history of Swat?

In 327 BC, Alexander the Great conquered the area. Around the second century BC, the valley was occupied by Buddhists. From the eighth century onwards, Islamic Arab leaders started to exert pressure from the west and in 1001, the Afghan ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni, launched several invasions of the Indian sub-continent, conquering Swat.

The British, colonial rulers of the Indian sub-continent from 1858 to 1947, recognised the state as one of many princely regions in India in 1926.

At Partition in 1947, when Pakistan broke away from India and independence was gained from Britain, the ruler of Swat ceded the state to Pakistan while retaining considerable autonomy. The princely state was abolished in 1969 by the Pakistan government.

What is the present status of Swat?

Swat is an administrative district of NWFP; it does not lie within Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and does not border on Afghanistan. The capital is Saidu Sharif but the main city is Mingora, adjacent to Saidu.

What are the origins of the conflict?

In 1992, Sufi Mohammad Khan established the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariah-Mohammadi (TNSM) in Swat, as a party seeking an Islamic order. The party rose to national prominence in 1995, when Khan demanded the immediate imposition of Sharia, Islamic law. Violence followed as paramilitary forces began an operation against him.

After Khan's imprisonment in 2002, his son-in-law, Maulana Fazalullah, a former chairlift operator, took over the TNSM at age 28. By 2007 he had aligned himself with the hardline Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), setting up dozens of illegal radio stations in Swat from which he preached his message of jihad (holy war).

Who are the main combatants?

Fighting in Swat began after Fazalullah in July 2007 ordered supporters to avenge a security force operation to clear militants out of the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) in Islamabad. Since then, paramilitary forces and the Pakistan army have fought militants led by Fazalullah. A brief truce in May 2008 brought relative peace but fighting resumed in August. Some 4,000 militants are said to be battling 12,000 troops. Although the militants in Swat enjoy support from militants in tribal areas they are not directly linked to them.

How many people have died?

There is no independent confirmation of the number of casualties. In January 2009, the military said 142 soldiers and paramilitary troops had died since August 2008. In 2007, the military confirmed the deaths of 230 civilians and 90 military personnel. At the end of 2007, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in Swat said at least 400 civilians had died and 1,000 houses were destroyed.

How many people have been displaced?

According to rights groups and the media, approximately 800,000 of Swat's 1.8 million people have fled. With intensified fighting from February 2009, as the Pakistan government promised to retake control of the valley from the militants, more people are reported to have left. Camps for internally displaced persons have been set up in Mingora and elsewhere by the provincial government.

Why is girls' education threatened?

Fazalullah opposes education for girls. Since the conflict in Swat began, 170-200 girls' schools have been torched or bombed. At the end of 2008, Fazalullah banned all education for girls. An estimated 80,000 girls are still not in class as schools felt too threatened to re-open after the winter holiday.

In February, the militants said they would allow education for girls to Grade 5. The government has promised all schools in Swat will re-open. Some schools have reopened in the valley but attendance is extremely low despite the truce. Women have also been ordered via militant-run radio stations to give up work and stay at home. Men have been ordered to grow beards and wear prayer caps.

Do the militants enjoy popular support?

Militant leaders, including Fazalullah and Khan, claim locals back their call for Islamic law but there is little independent evidence to support this. In the February 2008 general election, the secular Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party won 31 out of 96 seats in the NWFP provincial assembly, including most of those from the Swat area, while the coalition of religious parties, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) won only nine. The MMA failed to win any seat in Swat, which sends two members to the national assembly and seven to the provincial assembly. The TNSM did not contest the polls and has never done so since it opposes democracy.

What is the human rights situation in Swat?

HRCP has described it as "appalling". Apart from curbs on education for girls, the militants have been responsible for dozens of beheadings, public lashings and other acts reminiscent of the deposed Taliban regime in Afghanistan. According to media reports, those atrocities have included public executions without trial, the display of severed heads, the humiliation of women accused of prostitution by forcing them to dance in public before killing them, the exhumation of the bodies of enemies and public floggings. People opposing the militants have in some cases been forced out of Swat. Businesses, including video and CD shops, tailoring and barber outfits, have been burnt or forcibly closed down.

What is the nature of peace efforts?

The NWFP government has agreed a truce with Khan of the TNSM, whereby Sharia law would be imposed and both sides lay down arms. Residents have welcomed the ceasefire; however, two previous accords along similar lines have broken down.

The abduction and killing of a prominent journalist, Musa Khankhel, days after the truce, aggravates those fears. Many Pakistanis have criticised the deal, with HRCP warning it offers no guarantees to protect basic liberties and rights of groups, including women. Friction between different militant factions adds to the risks of the truce failing, though for the moment it has enabled girls to return to school, albeit only when fully veiled, as directed by the militants.

Sources: Newsline magazine; Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, State of Human Rights in Pakistan Annual Reports 1992-2007; AFPDawn; The News; The Daily Times; IRIN; Economic Survey of Pakistan, 2008.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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