Islamic law ushers in reign of terror in Pakistan's Swat valley

McClatchy NewspapersApril 30, 2009 

MINGORA, Pakistan — Two weeks after the Pakistani government capitulated to Islamist demands and imposed Islamic law throughout the Swat valley, armed militants are patrolling the streets of the district capital and masked gunmen have taken control of outlying districts, where they're terrorizing residents and using intimidation to close girls' schools.

Along major roads in the onetime tourist destination about 100 miles north of the capital, Islamabad, Pakistani Taliban have set up checkpoints, while in the towns they've looted homes and stolen cars and vehicles belonging to charitable organizations, residents told McClatchy.

The Pakistani government has portrayed the deal that it struck with the militants in February, which President Asif Ali Zardari signed on April 13, as the means to re-establish the writ of the state. Residents and officials said, however that the Taliban appear to be in control and are pushing Swat toward becoming an independent extremist fiefdom.

"The Taliban have tasted power. They will not give that back," said one Mingora teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by the extremists. "They have committed so many atrocities since 2007 that they can't give up power, they would not be safe. People are just waiting for the day they can take revenge (on the Taliban)."

The Pakistan army Thursday continued its operation to dislodge the Taliban from the adjacent district of Buner, where they moved from Swat early this month, but the Taliban captured a village, Sultanwas, and were reported to be holding the entire population captive.

Despite the fact the Taliban are openly carrying arms in violation of the accord, and in the face of repeated U.S. warnings that extremists are aiming to seize power in Pakistan, the government and army have shown no sign that they intend to retake Swat by force.

Even without leaving Mingora, the seat of district administration in the Swat valley, flagrant breaches of the peace accord with the Taliban are visible.

On the back road to Buner from Mingora, near the village of Kokarie, about a mile from the outskirts of town, fierce young Taliban manned an impromptu checkpoint earlier this week.

Half a dozen bearded militants, with AK-47 rifles slung over their shoulders, ammunition vests and walkie-talkies, stopped traffic and searched cars. What they were looking for was unclear, but locals said apparently they were there just to show that they're in control.

On the main road in and out of Mingora, armed Taliban were on the roadside in the suburbs of Balogram and Odigram, seemingly monitoring the situation. Residents of the suburbs said Taliban are present in much greater numbers in the side streets, occupying homes and public buildings and posting their armed comrades outside to keep watch.

Under the accord, Pakistan imposed Sharia law in return for peace, a bargain that many liberal Pakistanis and Washington consider a form of surrender by the Pakistani state. The accord states that the Taliban will "not display weapons in public" and "recognize the writ of the government."

"The peace deal has given them (the Taliban) a long life," said Shaukat Saleem, a human rights activist in Mingora. "Before, they could not roam freely in Mingora because there was a (military) operation on."

The agreement with the militants has stopped the worst of the violence, and schools have re-opened. During an 18-month rampage through Swat that ended in February, the Taliban butchered and plundered their way through the valley, blowing up nearly 200 schools, banning girls from education and barring women from markets.

Beheadings were a favorite execution style, especially for police officers and soldiers. Residents of Mingora would wake up to find headless corpses dumped in the town's main square.

Beyond Mingora, which lies at the bottom of the long Swat valley, the district is almost completely in Taliban hands, residents reported.

In Bahrain, a small town about 40 miles north of Mingora, Taliban arrived for the first time in the beginning of April. More than 50 armed militants, wearing masks, are now stationed in and around the town, with two checkpoints, residents told McClatchy. Last Monday, they shot and killed a police officer in Bahrain and threw his body in the river, locals said. Many other police officers fled or remain confined to the police station.

"Bahrain was better off before the (peace) deal," said one resident, who requested anonymity because he lives among the Taliban. "They (the Taliban) will remain and now they will be more forceful because they have the legitimacy of law behind them."

In Bahrain, most girls stopped going to school over the last week after threats from the local Taliban, and most female teachers have given up work, residents said. Shops selling music CDs have been forced to close, and barbers can no longer offer customers a shave. All stores and restaurants are compelled to close during prayer times, residents said.

An official from the North West Frontier Province administration, which is supposed to govern Swat, admitted that state officials with executive powers aren't functioning outside Mingora.

"If the government machinery is not even present (outside Mingora), how can there be any writ of the state?" asked the official, who couldn't be identified as he wasn't authorized to speak to the media. "Another military operation would have been a big disaster. We had to stop the beheadings, we didn't have other options (than the peace deal)."

The accord, negotiated by the provincial government, called for the creation of Islamic courts in Swat. Provincial government leaders said Thursday that the new courts would be functional within two days, and they expressed hope that the Taliban will then lay down their arms and be absorbed into the state security forces.

The militants doubt that the promised Islamic law will materialize.

"They (Islamabad) can't implement the Sharia regulation because they are the slaves of America," said Muslim Khan, a Taliban commander and spokesman, in an interview at his Imamderi headquarters just across the Swat River from Mingora. "The generals and the politicians are grabbing money from America to fight the Taliban. They don't care about Islam. They don't care about their country."

Officials estimate that there are no more than 4,000 Taliban in Swat, of whom perhaps 500 are hardcore ideologues. The NWFP government, led by the secular Awami National Party, said it had to sue for peace because the Pakistani army was unwilling to fight in Swat. The army blames the politicians for not giving firm backing and direction to the operation in Swat.

Given the Pakistani military's disastrous campaign in Swat, where locals insist that more people were killed by the army's long-distance shelling than by the Taliban, there's almost no appetite for another military offensive, no matter how brutal life is under the extremists.

"Those who sit in air-conditioned offices and want (a military) operation here should come and see conditions for themselves. People in Peshawar, Islamabad and America don't know what it's like here," said Fazlullah Khan, a lawyer and peace activist in Mingora who's not related to the Swat Taliban chief Fazlullah.

"If the army shows its strength, the Taliban shows its strength, the ones who will die are ordinary people."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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