Pakistan's Swat Valley: 'The Land of The Terrorists'

Taliban militants battle for control of Pakistan's Swat Valley.

January 26, 2009, 10:25 AM

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Jan. 26, 2008— -- A father carries his son's limp body in his arms, the boy's hair matted with blood. Behind them, the twisted remains of the man's home lie scattered in the street after a mortar attack. A piece of the building has pierced his child's skull.

The boy will not survive, like his little sister who died minutes before.

Welcome to Swat, a valley in northwest Pakistan that has been transformed from a tourist haven to a "terror camp." Where there was once a ski resort there are now masked men who dump mutilated bodies in the town square.

Where there was once the most developed district in the area, there are now the destroyed remains of more than 180 schools.

Where there used to be a progressive valley, women are now threatened with death for shopping alone.

Where there used to be peace, there is now terror.

"Swat used to be called the Switzerland of the East," a resident in Mingors, Swat's main city, tells an ABC News cameraman, refusing to give his name. "And now people call it 'the land of the terrorists.'"

Swat's descent into chaos, which occurred in less than a year and a half, is nearly complete. Nearly every single local politician has moved out after a steady campaign of attacks on their homes and families.

Parents don't feel safe enough to send their children to school. The economy has collapsed and business has evaporated.

The reason why Swat has fallen to the Taliban has become a bit of a blame game, with the local government blaming the military and the military blaming a botched peace deal, the people and the difficult conditions.

Awami National Party Speaks

But there is a widespread belief in Swat that the military has not defeated the militants because the army has struck a deal with them. It is a belief that few people here speak about on the record, but the Awami National Party, which is the coalition leader in the Northwest Frontier Province, agreed to a candid, on-camera interview on the subject.

"At times, when I see the results, the outcomes, I wonder, is this really a professional army, an intelligence force, that is wreaking havoc in the lives of the people?" said Bushra Gohar, the party's senior vice president. "I'm not willing to accept that our military cannot catch a handful of militants and extremists. People's perceptions after several months of operations is that there is a military-militant-mullah alliance."

The military, which has lost 124 soldiers in Swat, angrily denies that, calling it "absurd and preposterous." It says when it first arrived in Swat, in November 2007, it cleaned the valley of militants in five weeks. But a spring 2008 peace deal between the party and the Taliban allowed the militants to return and integrate themselves into society, and the current operation is suffering because of that, the army says.

"It's a very, very slow fight. It's an operation, which has a lot of constraints," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army's chief spokesman. "You have to move through the population, and particularly if the population is not coming out in [the] open, not willingly welcoming the army, and is not pointing out which areas the militants are either consolidating or hiding or have taken refuge, then it becomes difficult to actually target the militants."

The people who have terrorized Swat are a mostly local band of Taliban and criminals, but the valley's anarchy could spread into more districts of Pakistan, analysts say, further eroding government writ in northwest Pakistan, which has become increasingly dominated by the Taliban.

"Swat was the most peaceful district in the whole province. So if a peaceful place can become so violent, then the same thing can happen to the other places," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, an ABC News consultant and the Peshawar-based editor of The News International newspaper, which has tried to highlight an issue the national government has only recently publicly discussed.

"Swat will have a fallout on the adjoining areas, and it includes some districts that are on the Afghanistan border," Yusufzai said. "Swat has already become one of the centers of the operation for Taliban in the neighboring districts and the tribal areas."

The militants have waged a campaign against education in the valley, especially -- but not exclusively -- female education.

Nearly 184 schools have been destroyed by militants' bombs, according to Shaukat Yousafzai, the top administrator in Swat. Approximately 120 of them have been girls schools.

But the campaign will go far beyond the 50,000 girls whose schools have been bombed. Administrators say there is no way the schools will reopen on Feb. 2, when students are scheduled to return from winter break, if the current law and order situation does not improve.

"We have communicated to the district administration that unless and until total peace is restored, we will not be able to reopen our schools," said Ziauddin Yousafzai, a social activist and a senior member of Swat's Private Schools Management Association. "The poor downtrodden of Swat, they are still stuck in Swat, and they cannot send their children to school."

Taliban's Hit List

Politicians, police and reporters have been singled out by the Taliban.

On Sunday, the militants released the equivalent of a hit list: 47 politicians, local leaders and activists who "have to appear before the Taliban court, otherwise, they will face action," Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told local reporters. Khan's is a death threat.

It was the most overt effort yet in a campaign to destroy the political establishment of Swat, where more than a two dozen politicians' relatives have been killed, according to Bushra.

Nearly every single politician has fled Swat, including Syed Alladuddin, a member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party. Alladuddin now lives in Islamabad.

"The writ of the government is not there," he said. "You cannot go to the police station and register a report. I would like to say that it is completely paralyzed. There is no government at all."

Alladuddin argues originally, people welcomed the Taliban's promise of sharia law as an alternative to a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy. But this is not the sharia that people had envisioned.

"Now the people hate the Taliban. But they don't have the courage to stand up."

Nor do they have the ability to go to the police, who have been systematically wiped out. Eight months ago, when the current military campaign was restarted, 1,700 police officers patrolled the Swat valley, according to Shaukat Yousafzai. Today, that number is between 290 and 300.

Late last year, 600 elite police officers graduated from a counterinsurgency program at the Punjab Regimental Center in Mardan, just outside of Peshawar.

They refused to be deployed to Swat, officials told ABC News, because they did not agree with the way the military was conducting the operation.

That underscores a widespread doubt in the army's ability as well as its motivation to defeat the militants.

The Awami National Party's Gohar accuses the military of a "duplicity of policies," saying it has supported camps in the tribal areas where militants receive training.

"If we want peace and prosperity in Pakistan, we cannot go around killing people in other countries, or sending in extremists and militants from our soil," she said. "The problem is not in Swat, the problem is not in Waziristan, the problem is not in Bajaur, the problem is in Islamabad, and maybe GHQ [the General Army Headquarters]."

Harsh Curfews

Others accuse the military of being overwhelmed by the ferocity of the Taliban's fight.

"There's a question of motivation," said Yusufzai, the Peshawar editor of The News International. "Because these militants are willing to die while the soldiers are trying to save their lives."

During the weekend, an anonymous group of residents posted pamphlets on the walls of mosques. "The militants have been dragging out people of their homes and killing them. They have been bombing or torching schools during curfew at nights. Taliban have also established checkpoints where the security forces have check posts. Taliban have been whipping people... but security forces don't take action against the militants."

During the weekend the military took a dramatic step, issuing an "indefinite" curfew for parts of Swat, according to the state-run media center in Swat.

"Any body and vehicle violating curfew orders will be shot on sight. No vehicle is to move in the area during curfew," the statement said. "People have been requested to remain in homes and avoid movement and fully observe curfew orders."

And the military is changing its tactics, Abbas says, moving soldiers closer to the population. An additional brigade is also arriving in Swat, and a brigade that was operating here has been removed, replaced by a new commander who was based in Gujranwala, a district in southeastern Pakistan.

But right now, the people of Swat say this city and their beloved valley has never been worse.

"Swatis are unable to live even hand to mouth," said Ziauddin Yousafzai. "Swat is burning."

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