Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Taliban hold upper hand in Swat Valley

Posted by vmsalama on February 4, 2009

Vivian Salama, Correspondent

The National

LAHORE // Nearly 30 Pakistani police officers captured during a long day of fierce battles between Taliban militants and Pakistani security forces have been released unharmed.

Officials with the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) government confirmed that Taliban insurgents had abducted the officers on Wednesday when they seized control of the Shamozai police checkpoint in the volatile Swat Valley. They were released less than 24 hours later.

“They did not harm us,” policeman Abdul Haq told Reuters. “The Taliban have given us a new lease of life.”

Since late 2007, militants have infiltrated the valley from Taliban and al Qa’eda strongholds just across the border in Afghanistan, implementing austere Islamist rule.
A statement released by the Pakistani army earlier this week said that about 16 militants had been killed in the latest military operation in Swat. However, efforts to maintain law and order have been complicated in recent weeks with a growing number of Swat police forces deserting duties or dying in clashes.

“We cannot leave our people at the mercy of terrorists,” said Pakistan’s minister of information Sherry Rehman. “It is important to pursue a strategy that incorporates political and social measures to build the architecture of sustainable peace in Swat, and in the Tribal Areas.”

Despite the police and military action, local media reports reveal that control over the Swat Valley has essentially fallen into the hands of the insurgency.

News of the takeover recently sparked an international outcry after militants closed girls’ schools across the valley, later torching and bombing many. 

swat-schoolsWomen have been forbidden from walking in the streets and at least 50,000 girls have been banned from attending school. Militants have also utilised an illegal FM radio frequency to broadcast their authoritarian teachings.

“We are extremely concerned because the civilian population in Swat is caught in crossfire between militants and security forces,” said I A Rehman, the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which has a significant presence across the NWFP.

Officials estimate that about 1,200 civilians have been killed and about 2,000 wounded in Swat since 2007.

The escalating violence has triggered a mass exodus, with hundreds of thousands of civilians reportedly fleeing the valley, a popular holiday and honeymoon destination, described as “Switzerland of the East” by the popular travel guide Lonely Planet. Government estimates reveal that as much as one-third of Swat’s 1.5 million residents may have fled the valley since fighting began more than one year ago.

“The death toll is rising every day and we are extremely concerned about the people who have been dislocated,” Mr Rehman said. 

Concerns are mounting that the insurgency may seep into the heart of Pakistan. Located a mere 160km from Islamabad, the Talibanisation of this picturesque region has hit close to home for many. 

“People here just can’t believe it,” said Nadeem Sheikh, a businessman based in Lahore. “Swat is such a popular tourism destination for people from Lahore, Karachi and Rawalpindi and now it is becoming fundamentalist – this is not the Pakistan we know.”

US President Barack Obama has said he intends to take a firmer stance with Pakistan to ensure Afghan militants do not slip through the cracks, using the country’s semi-autonomous tribal border region as a sanctuary. 

Pakistan has been a key partner and staging ground for the Bush administration’s military operations in Afghanistan, as well as the broader “war on terrorism”. Some analysts believe that US cross-border military operations will only exacerbate Pakistan’s security woes.

“The terrain and local resources and political problems are extremely complex in the region and something the Pakistani military is dealing with a lot better than the US can,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of politics at the Lahore University of Management and Economic Research.

For Mr Sheikh and many like him, this popular holiday spot may be gone forever. “The way things are in Swat now, it seems it will never be the same.”

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