MINGORA, Pakistan – The road to the legendary Swat Valley twists through the Malakand Pass and beneath the Malakand Fort, from which young Winston Churchill sent newspaper dispatches about a “mad mullah” trying to drive the British army out.
Today, this valley of snowcapped mountains, fruit orchards and streams, once a popular destination for tourists, has become a testing ground for another army – Pakistan’s own – in its battle to crush militants who threaten the state.
Only months ago, Swat was controlled by the Taliban, who slit the throats of those who resisted. Reluctant to fight, the civilian government signed a “peace” deal, only to see the Taliban march toward Islamabad, the capital.
A reluctant army attacked in April and has mostly cleared out the militants. Hundreds of thousands of Swat residents who fled have returned. Yet there is an undercurrent of unease here, because the build piece of the classic clear-hold-build counterinsurgency strategy has been so slow in coming.
No compensation is yet on offer for businesses and hotels destroyed by the Taliban or the army. Many students sit on the ground because their schools were destroyed.
“This Talibanization was caused not only by the mullahs but by the neglect of the government,” said Zahid Khan, the courtly, white-bearded president of the Swat Hotel Association, who tried to organize local resistance to the Taliban when they first came but received no government support. “Political leaders don’t come here,” he added. None of Pakistan’s top leaders has visited Mingora, although it is the symbol of the anti-Taliban struggle.
“The economy has totally collapsed,” said Noor Mohammed Khan, the owner of a resort hotel damaged in the fighting. “If the losses of the people aren’t taken care of, the Taliban might come back.”
The leader of the Taliban in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, told the BBC last week that he had escaped to Afghanistan and was planning renewed attacks.
Many ask what the state intends to do for the 250,000 people newly displaced from impoverished South Waziristan, where the latest phase of the fight against the Taliban is under way. The government has yet to resettle tens of thousands of refugees from an army offensive in the tribal area of Bajaur a year ago. When I visited one of the refugees’ desolate camps outside Peshawar in April, they were already frantic. I wonder how many of them may have joined the Taliban by now.
Indeed, the failure of Pakistan’s leaders to rally the people of Swat or South Waziristan goes to the heart of the country’s problems. Bunkered down, tarred with corruption and fighting for his political life, President Asif Ali Zardari has passed up numerous chances to stand with his people.
“Benazir (Bhutto) would have visited South Waziristan two or three times by now,” said Masood Sharif Khan Khattak, formerly a close adviser to Bhutto, who was Zardari’s wife and was assassinated while campaigning for prime minister in 2007.
Private volunteer organizations funded by civic-minded Pakistanis, such as the Swat Peace Jirga led by Rayat Ullah Khan, have tried to help in small ways. The United States offered to replicate the “Chinook diplomacy” in which it airlifted massive amounts of rebuilding supplies into Pakistani Kashmir after a 2005 earthquake. But Pakistan refused the offer, fearing a U.S. fingerprint on its Swat efforts even though America was the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the valley. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government has yet to do the job itself.
The Pakistani army knows the build piece is essential to its campaign. During my visit to the city, army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani helicoptered into Mingora and pledged that troops would remain for a long time. He also promised to play a role in rebuilding.
Yet without civilian input and civilian leadership, Swat’s economy won’t be restored.
“The army is doing a solo flight, but civic work should be given to a civilian government,” said Ziaudin Yusufzai, the head of a private school in Swat and one of a group of civic leaders drawing up plans for an economic revival.
Yusufzai says the Taliban can’t return to Swat, because the people won’t permit it. The Taliban certainly won’t retake control as long as the army remains.
But other tribal areas are more vulnerable and more receptive to the militants, especially if their villages are wrecked by fighting and no one helps with reconstruction. Until the day the Pakistani government figures out how to build, the fight won’t be finished. In Swat, people worry that day may never come.
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