This small town in Charsadda district, bordering the Mohmand tribal agency, has lived through the Taliban nightmare. A ruthless campaign was mounted to ‘Islamise’ an already Muslim population. While the town has wriggled out of the clutches of militants, sporadic attacks continue on security forces and state-run schools.
Local residents have vivid memories of the Taliban in Shabqadar. “It was in 2008 when Taliban vigilantes marched along the main Shabqadar bazaar,” recalls local journalist Syed Ataullah Shah. “Though residents took up the issue with the authorities, nothing was done,” he added.
In the ensuing weeks and months, the Taliban launched a brazen campaign to enforce their own version of Islam: both men and women were told to observe the ‘Islamic dress code’, music and CD shops were bombed, and secular education was banned.
“They extorted money from the affluent and those who refused were kidnapped. Naveed Alam and Tajuddin, two prosperous doctors of the area were abducted and only released after their families paid a heavy ransom,” Shah told The Express Tribune sitting in his modest office in the Shabqadar bazaar.
“For them, every working woman was immoral,” said Sher Ali, president of the Shabqadar Press Club. He recalled a gruesome incident when a woman was executed for her refusal to quit her job.
“Shahida, a lady health visitor, lived in the bazaar area. She was kidnapped by the Taliban. And after a couple of days her denuded and mutilated body was found under the Subhan Khwar bridge, near the Shabqadar bazaar. Her crime was that she worked,” Ali told The Express Tribune.
Between 2008 and 2009, around 40 people – many among them working women – were executed by the Taliban in the tehsil. The victims were mostly those who refused to conform to the Taliban’s version of Islam.
A local lawmaker said that the Taliban hierarchy in Shabqadar belonged to local religious families, though the rank and file also included criminals and outlaws. Not everyone believes this. “The Taliban were a blessing in disguise. They eliminated drugs, gambling dens and other immoral activities,” Muhammad Ali, a member of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assembly, told The Express Tribune.
According to sources, the Shabqadar’s Talibanisation was led by one Shakeel Salgaray, a Mohmand tribesman and a tailor by vocation. He was recruited by Abdul Wali, the chief of the Mohmand chapter of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The Taliban found recruits among the Mohmand tribes straddling the border between Charsadda district and Mohmand Agency. Jobless and disillusioned young men and local criminal groups also joined them for monetary benefits.
To counter the Taliban, in early 2008, Muhammad Younis Katozai, father of local lawmaker Tabassum Younis, formed an Aman Lashkar (peace committee) at the behest of the provincial government. It was initially a success. “Thousands of volunteers of the Aman Lashkar staged a peace march in Shabqadar bazaar. They rallied from Bacha Khan Markaz to the tehsil headquarters hospital. And the message was loud and clear: we are united against the Taliban,” a former member of the lashkar told The Express Tribune requesting anonymity.
However, the Lashkar became ineffective by the end of the year after repeated attacks on its elders. “Muhammad Nawaz, a Lashkar elder who hailed from the Haleemzai sub-clan of Mohmand tribe, suffered the most for defying the Taliban,” the Lashkar member said.
Khadim Hussain, head of the Aryana Institute for Regional Advocacy and Peace, says that the Lashkar was a cultural defence system of the Pakhtuns. “However, it is essential for the success of a Lashkar that it is self-motivated, properly streamlined and its members have a sense of collective responsibility,” Hussain said. Help also came from outside. Local police, aided by the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC), mounted a series of targeted search operations in Shabqadar tehsil in 2008 and 2009 against the Taliban and their sympathisers. As a result, the situation normalised.
Hussain attributed the Shabqadar success to three factors: the Taliban could not find recruits among the local population, district authorities were determined to root out the evil and the local population had the will to rid Shabqadar from the Taliban.
Though militants have been flushed out from the region, they continue their activities in the villages bordering Mohamand Agency. “One month ago, the TTP circulated pamphlets in Pachees Dehat village, asking residents to volunteer one man from each family for ‘jihad’ and quit government jobs,” a source said.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 17th, 2011.
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