Either kill me or stop it now,” Chand Bibi whimpered in between screams of pain. As the men of the village watched, she had been pinned to the ground by two men, one her brother. Then, with metronomic precision, a black-turbaned cleric took his lash to her body. Early in 2009, Pakistan had signed a peace deal with jihadists of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), ceding them control of the Swat valley’s judicial system. The video was widely circulated, an education on life in the shade of the Sharia.
“She came out of her house with another guy who was not her husband,” a TTP spokesperson said, “so we must punish her.” “There are boundaries you cannot cross.”
Last month, that spokesperson—jihadist commander Muslim Khan—was secretly flown out of death row at a military prison in Pakistan, into the custody of the Afghan Taliban in Kabul. The release is key to a series of complex steps to secure a deal with the TTP. Led by Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed, former chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence and now commanding officer of the Peshawar-headquartered XI corps.
Even as the TTP and the Pakistan Army have ostensibly been observing a ceasefire, jihadist attacks have continued. Just this week, a soldier was killed in an attack on a military post in North Waziristan, and eight more died in an assault across the Afghan border last month. Escalating TTP violence since its Taliban patrons took power in Kabul—the worst in years, according to scholars Amira Jadoon and Abdul Sayeed—gives Islamabad excellent reason to make do a deal.
Yet, the forgotten video of Chand Bibi’s punishment and the massive surge in violence of which it was just a small part are reminders that peace with the jihadists might prove as bloody as war.
The rise of Muslim Khan
From interviews conducted by the journalist Imtiaz Ali, it is clear Muslim Khan’s story mirrors those of many jihadist leadership from Pakistan’s north-west. Educated at a government-run school in Koza Banda, the village where he was born, Khan is believed to have gone on to study at Jahanzeb Government Graduate College, in the town of Mingora, in 1972. He marked the rise of a new, educated class which hoped to sweep aside feudal tribal leadership—and discovered the Kalashnikov just the tool for the cause.
The period was the high-noon of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the charismatic prime minister who melded socialism with Islam. Led by the cleric Kausar Niazi—who preached a kind of liberation theology, casting Sharia as the key to social justice— Muslim Khan dropped out of postgraduate studies to become a full-time Pakistan’s People Party activist.
By Muslim Khan’s own account of events, he was passionately committed to the cause: On one occasion, he kidnapped two government officials after a PPP student activist was killed, and ended up serving almost a month in prison for the crime.
Like millions of other young radicals, though, Muslim Khan’s early political career ended in disillusion. From the early 1980s, Khan told journalist Abdul Hai Kakar, he left Swat to work with a British shipping company. There are accounts, somewhat opaque, that the jihad commander also worked in the United States, first with a house-painting company in Boston, and at a petrol pump.
Then, after the first Gulf War broke out, Muslim Khan returned home and set up a pharmaceutical store in Mingora. The diaspora dream was in sight—but Khan hadn’t quite given up on politics.
Fighting for Sharia
From early in the 1990s, Muslim Khan became active in the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), or the Movement for Implementing the Prophet Muhammad’s Law. Led by the former Jamaat-e-Islami politician Sufi Muhammad Bin Hassan, the movement called for the implementation of the Sharia in Swat. The TNSM mobilised against prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s government in 1994, drawing tens of thousands into its crusade against a woman ruling.
And following 9/11, Sufi Muhammad raised thousands of volunteers to fight along the Afghan Taliban. Imprisoned for this crime until 2008, the TNSM left control to his son-in-law Fazal Hayat—and a generation of jihadists who would go on to found the TTP five years later.
Like so many of the TNSM’s rank-and-file, Muslim Khan became impatient with Sufi Muhammad’s calls for political struggle against the Pakistani state. In one interview, he called the TNSM a party of “old men who can do nothing.”
In interviews, Muslim Khan laid out an expansive view of his aims. “Initially we want implementation of Sharia in our own region,” he declared, “and then we would like the same in the North-West Frontier Province and then ultimately the whole of Pakistan. He called on Muslims to unite in a single nation, “and form a single army and single currency.” “The concept of the Western form of democracy,” Khan insisted, “is against Sharia.”
Arrested in 2009, in the course of a Pakistan Army offensive into Swat, Muslim Khan was eventually convicted by a military court for the killings of 34 people, including four soldiers. He was also found guilty, a Pakistan Army press release said, of kidnapping two Chinese nationals for ransom. General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s army chief, personally signed off on the sentence.
The appointment with the hangman never came, though. Last year, when Lieutenant-General Faiz began negotiating with the TTP in Kabul—using community elders as go-betweens—Muslim Khan’s name was among those of over 100 prisoners the jihadist group sought released. The death-row convict’s release would have caused deep embarrassment to the Pakistan army, though.
Eventually, Taliban interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and intelligence chief, Abdul Haq Wasiq, brokered a deal to hand key prisoners over to Kabul, while a final peace deal is hammered out.
Islamabad’s perilous peace deals
Following the surge of jihadist violence after 9/11, Daud Khattak has recorded, military ruler General Pervez Musharraf signed a peace agreement with commander Nek Muhammad Wazir. The agreement unravelled inside days. In 2005, there was another deal with jihadist warlord Baitullah Mehsud; the third in Swat; several more, written or informal, in 2008-2009. Finally, in 2014, Pakistan’s army was forced to go to war against the jihadists, after the collapse of talks under prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
Each peace deal saw jihadists resiling on their promises to sever ties with transnational groups like al-Qaeda—and step-up attacks on civilians opposed to them. Even the ideologically-sympathetic prime minister Imran Khan—who “preached for understanding for the arsonist”, scholar Ahsan Butt has wryly observed—failed to secure peace.
Islamabad had hoped that the rise of the Taliban would see the TTP evicted from its safe-havens in Afghanistan. Instead, thousands of TTP prisoners were released, making their way home.
Faced with an economic meltdown, as well as political chaos, the Pakistan army likely believes going to war is not now a viable choice. Even though the Pakistan army cannot publicly concede the TTP’s demands—among them, the withdrawal of the military from the tribal areas of the north-west, and the imposition of Sharia across the region—it’s seeking to buy time.
Chand Bibi disappeared from the news seven years after she was tortured. Summoned to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, she—wisely—testified that nothing had happened. Three judges, led by chief justice Mian Saqib Nisar, concluded that the video was fake. Exactly who might have made it, or why, was never made clear.
The jihadist sunrise over Pakistan’s north-west threatens to make it war-torn wasteland. The Generals will likely call this peace.
The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)