MINGORA, Pakistan (AP) — The Taliban’s horrific attack on a female teenage activist in this scenic corner of Pakistan’s northwest was the latest in a series of assassination attempts by militant sleeper cells in the area during the past year, each carried out with targeted shots to the head.
The insurgents activated their networks in the Swat Valley to take advantage of the army’s decision to reduce its presence and accelerate the transition of security and governance to civilian authorities in the wake of a big offensive in 2009 to push out the Taliban.
The valley is in little danger of falling under the militants’ control again any time soon. But the resurgent threat raises questions about the army’s ability to hand over control to civilians in Swat and other areas of the northwest where soldiers are fighting the Taliban, a fundamental part of the military’s counterterror strategy.
Building effective civilian government and law enforcement is critical not only so that the military can withdraw, but also so that officials can address local grievances related to development and justice that can fuel support for the insurgents.
The Taliban shot and wounded 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai as she was heading home from school in Swat’s main town of Mingora on Oct. 9. The militants targeted the girl because she was an outspoken opponent of the group and promoted “Western thinking,” such as education for girls.
The militants have carried out at least a half-dozen other assassination attempts against their opponents in Swat since the end of last year, killing four people and wounding several others, said security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Haji Zahid Khan, a member of a major tribal council in Swat, was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in August but managed to survive. Mr. Khan criticized the army and police for not taking his case seriously enough, which he believes emboldened the militants.
“Had they arrested the culprits in my case, the network that was working could have been traced,” Mr. Khan said. “The Malala incident could not have happened.”
Investigations into the shootings indicated the attackers came from Afghanistan, where many militants fled following the army offensive in 2009, said Kamran Rehman Khan, the top government official in Swat. The militants worked with networks of sympathizers in Swat who provided weapons, ammunition, cellphones and other logistical support, he said.
The insurgents activated their networks to take advantage of the army’s decision to reduce its presence in Swat. The military has decreased the 40 checkpoints it had in the area by almost half in the last year, although the number of troops in the valley has stayed the same, said Mr. Khan, the senior government official.
The army launched its offensive in Swat in the spring of 2009 with about 25,000 troops and originally planned to hand over control to civilian authorities and pull out over a period of about two years. That hasn’t happened because the civilians haven’t proved capable of handling security, military officials say.
The number of police in Swat has more than doubled to about 3,700, Mr. Khan said, but police in the country routinely lack sufficient resources and would likely have trouble keeping the militants at bay.
For this reason, the army still has about 12,500 soldiers in Swat and has plans to build permanent bases for some of them. The military hopes to reduce the number of troops by 50 percent next year, but experts are doubtful.
“The civilians don’t feel confident enough to manage the area in the absence of the military, so the military will stay,” Pakistani defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said.
The inability to pass the baton to civilians in Swat raises questions about what the military plans to do in the adjacent tribal region, which serves as the main sanctuary for the Taliban in the country and is even less developed than Swat. The army has more than 100,000 troops fighting in the semiautonomous region, and the experience in Swat indicates the generals will have difficulty pulling them out.