5 years, 3 months ago
What was once a scenic vacation and ski resort area is now a Taliban stronghold.
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 outside the lawless tribal areas where jihadists thrive …
“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.
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.”
As we discussed in Pakistan Redeploying Troops to Indian Border (and a month before that), this is the effect the Mumbai attacks were intended to produce. But Talibanization is spreading even further Eastward and Southward from Swat.
Four months ago, the people of the Pakistani mountain village of Shalbandi gained national repute after a village posse hunted down and killed six Taliban fighters who had tied up and killed eight local policemen. The posse displayed the Taliban corpses like trophies for other residents to see, and the village was celebrated as a courageous sign that the Taliban could be repelled.
On Sunday morning, the Taliban struck back.
A suicide car bomber set off an explosion at a school in Shalbandi that was serving as a polling place, as voters lined up to elect a representative to the National Assembly. More than 30 people were killed and more than two dozen wounded, according to local political and security officials. Children and several policemen were among the dead.
The attack was the latest demonstration of the Taliban’s bloody encroachment eastward and deeper into Pakistan from the lawless tribal areas on the western border. Shalbandi is less than 100 miles northwest of Islamabad, the capital, and lies just south of the lush Swat Valley, a onetime ski resort known as the “Switzerland of Pakistan” that has been largely taken over by the Taliban despite large-scale army operations.
The Pakistan military has allowed radical elements to both dictate the terms of its engagements with India and with the radicals, the later as a function of the former. All the while, Pakistan is falling to the radicals.