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Scenic Pakistani valley falls to Taliban militants

by Nahal Toosi

ISLAMABAD, Pak­istan – Tal­iban mil­i­tants are behead­ing and burn­ing their way through Pak­istan’s pic­turesque Swat Val­ley, and res­i­dents say the insur­gents now con­trol most of the moun­tain­ous region far from the law­less trib­al areas where jihadists thrive.

The dete­ri­o­rat­ing sit­u­a­tion in the for­mer tourist haven comes despite an army offen­sive that began in 2007 and an attempt­ed peace deal. It is espe­cial­ly wor­ri­some to Pak­istani offi­cials because the val­ley lies out­side the areas where al-Qai­da and Tal­iban mil­i­tants have tra­di­tion­al­ly oper­at­ed and where the mil­i­tary is stag­ing a sep­a­rate offen­sive.

“You can’t imag­ine how bad it is,” said Muzaf­far ul-Mulk, a fed­er­al law­mak­er whose home in Swat was attacked by bomb-tot­ing assailants in mid-Decem­ber, weeks after he left. “It’s worse day by day.”

The Tal­iban activ­i­ty in north­west Pak­istan also comes as the coun­try shifts forces east to the Indi­an bor­der because of ten­sions over last mon­th’s ter­ror­ist attacks in Mum­bai, poten­tial­ly giv­ing insur­gents more space to maneu­ver along the Afghan fron­tier.

Mil­i­tants began prey­ing on Swat’s lush moun­tain ranges about two years ago, and it is now too dan­ger­ous for for­eign and Pak­istani jour­nal­ists to vis­it. Inter­views with res­i­dents, law­mak­ers and offi­cials who have fled the region paint a dire pic­ture.

A sui­cide blast killed 40 peo­ple Sun­day at a polling sta­tion in Buner, an area bor­der­ing Swat that had been rel­a­tive­ly peace­ful. The attack under­scored fears that even so-called “set­tled” regions pre­sump­tive­ly under gov­ern­ment con­trol are increas­ing­ly unsafe.

The 3,500-square-mile Swat Val­ley lies less than 100 miles from the cap­i­tal, Islam­abad.

A senior gov­ern­ment offi­cial said he feared there could be a spillover effect if the gov­ern­ment lost con­trol of Swat and allowed the insur­gency to infect oth­er areas. Like near­ly every­one inter­viewed, the offi­cial request­ed anonymi­ty for fear of reprisal by mil­i­tants.

Offi­cials esti­mate that up to a third of Swat’s 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple have left the area. Salah-ud-Din, who over­sees relief efforts in Swat for the Inter­na­tion­al Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross, esti­mat­ed that 80 per­cent of the val­ley is now under Tal­iban con­trol.

Swat’s mil­i­tants are led by Maulana Fazlul­lah, a cler­ic who rose to promi­nence through radio broad­casts demand­ing the impo­si­tion of a harsh brand of Islam­ic law. His appeal tapped into wide­spread frus­tra­tion with the area’s inef­fi­cient judi­cial sys­tem.

Most of the insur­gents are easy to spot with long hair, beards, rifles, cam­ou­flage vests and run­ning shoes. They num­ber at most 2,000, accord­ing to peo­ple who were inter­viewed.

In some places, just a hand­ful of insur­gents can con­trol a vil­lage. They rule by fear: behead­ing gov­ern­ment sym­pa­thiz­ers, blow­ing up bridges and demand­ing women wear all-encom­pass­ing burqas.

They have also set up a par­al­lel admin­is­tra­tion with courts, tax­es, patrols and check­points, accord­ing to law­mak­ers and offi­cials. And they are sus­pect­ed of burn­ing scores of girls’ schools.

In mid-Decem­ber, Tal­iban fight­ers killed a young mem­ber of a Sufi-influ­enced Mus­lim group who had tried to raise a mili­tia against them. The mil­i­tants lat­er dug up Pir Sami­ul­lah’s corpse and hung it for two days in a vil­lage square — part­ly to prove to his fol­low­ers that he was not a super­hu­man saint, a secu­ri­ty offi­cial said on con­di­tion of anonymi­ty.

A law­mak­er and the senior Swat gov­ern­ment offi­cial said busi­ness and landown­ers had been told to give two-thirds of their income to the mil­i­tants. Some local media report­ed last week that the mil­i­tants have pro­nounced a ban on female edu­ca­tion effec­tive in mid-Jan­u­ary.

Sev­er­al peo­ple inter­viewed said the region­al gov­ern­ment made a mis­take in May when it struck a peace deal with the mil­i­tants. The agree­ment fell apart with­in two months but let the insur­gents regroup.

The Swat insur­gency also includes Afghan and oth­er fight­ers from out­side the val­ley, secu­ri­ty offi­cials said.

Any move­ment of Pak­istani troops from the Swat Val­ley and trib­al areas to the Indi­an bor­der will con­cern the Unit­ed States and oth­er West­ern coun­tries, which want Pak­istan to focus on the al-Qai­da threat near Afghanistan.

On Fri­day, Pak­istani intel­li­gence offi­cials said thou­sands of troops were being shift­ed toward the bor­der with India, which blames Pak­istani mil­i­tants for ter­ror­ist attacks in Mum­bai last month that killed 164 peo­ple. But there has been no sign yet of a major buildup near India.

“The ter­ror­ists’ aim in Mum­bai was pre­cise­ly this — to get the Pak­istani army to with­draw from the west­ern bor­der and mount oper­a­tions on the east,” said Ahmed Rashid, a jour­nal­ist and author who has writ­ten exten­sive­ly about mil­i­tan­cy in the region.

“The ter­ror­ists are not going to be sit­ting still. They are not going to be adher­ing to any sort of cease-fire while the army takes on the Indi­an threat. They are going to occu­py the vac­u­um the army will cre­ate.”

Res­i­dents and offi­cials from the Swat Val­ley were crit­i­cal of the army offen­sive there, say­ing troops appeared to be con­fined to their posts and often killed civil­ians when fir­ing artillery at sus­pect­ed mil­i­tant tar­gets.

The mil­i­tary has deployed some 100,000 troops through the north­west.

A gov­ern­ment offi­cial famil­iar with secu­ri­ty issues esti­mat­ed that some 10,000 para­mil­i­tary and army troops had killed 300 to 400 mil­i­tants in Swat since 2007, while about 130 troops were killed. Author­i­ties have not released details of civil­ian casu­al­ties, and it was unclear if they were even being tal­lied.

The offi­cial, who insist­ed on anonymi­ty because of the issue’s sen­si­tiv­i­ty, dis­put­ed asser­tions that mil­i­tants had over­run the val­ley, but said a spot­ty sup­ply line was ham­per­ing oper­a­tions. He said the army had to man some Swat police sta­tions because the police force there had been dec­i­mat­ed by deser­tions and mil­i­tant killings.

A Swat mil­i­tant boast­ed that “we are doing our activ­i­ties wher­ev­er we want, and the army is con­fined to their liv­ing places.”

“They can­not move inde­pen­dent­ly like us,” said the man, who was reached over the phone and gave his name as Muzaf­farul Haq. He claimed the Swat mil­i­tants had no al-Qai­da or for­eign con­nec­tions, but that they sup­port­ed all groups that shared the goal of impos­ing Islam­ic law.

“With the grace of Allah, there is no dearth of funds, weapons or rations,” he said. “Our women are pro­vid­ing cooked food for those who are strug­gling in Allah’s path. Our chil­dren are get­ting pre­pared for jihad.”


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