Sunday, February 1, 2009

ISLAMABAD | The Pakistani government has lost control of 80 percent of Swat, a scenic valley in the northwest, where Taliban militants are implementing their own harsh system of justice and spreading fear through the use of FM radio.

Local officials, including a minister, Bashir Bilour, say a few thousand militants rule the former tourist region, which was once considered to be the most developed and educated town in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.

Taliban forces control Mingora and Saidu Sharif, the region’s two major towns, as well as three of four subdivisions in the valley, local officials say. Government forces in Mata, Kabal and Khwazakhela are restricted to their bases.

The spreading Taliban presence threatens nearby cities and towns such as Peshawar, Buner, Dir and Mardan, but has not yet reached Islamabad, some 155 miles away.

More than half a million residents have fled their homes owing to violence, and nearly 400,000 have moved to Islamabad and other Pakistani cities, including Peshawar, Karachi and Rawalpindi.

The Taliban have established their own courts and are implementing harsh rulings, including executions, lashes and fines. Militants are forbidding women and girls to go to school and are barring women from shopping in markets and men from shaving their beards.

The militants are led by Mullah Fazlullah, a hard-line cleric, and are associated with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella group of Pakistani militants headed by Baitullah Mehsud.

Mullah Fazlullah and his men appear to be more successful than the Taliban in the tribal areas along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, benefiting from the effective use of FM radio and a relative lack of international attention.

The United States has been more focused on militants’ activities in the tribal regions, seeking to hinder their cross-border movement and attacks in neighboring Afghanistan.

Rehman Malik, an adviser to the Pakistani government on interior affairs, said Jan. 23 that a decisive step by the government against Swat militants was imminent.

However, a military operation launched in Swat in November 2007 failed to establish government control or to restore peace in the region, despite the increasing unpopularity of militants owing to their attacks on civilians and the ban on girls’ education.

Rahimullah Yousafzai, a specialist on the Taliban, said the people of Swat do not like the militants, but have no confidence in the government’s ability to defeat them.

“People in Swat are frightened. They will obey the orders of those who are in control, and militants are controlling Swat,” he said. “People will support the government against militants only when the government proves its ability and authority to safeguard them.”

Mr. Yousafzai said the lack of counterinsurgency training for the government forces battling militants was a major reason for the government’s ineffectiveness.

“Pakistani forces are trained only for conventional wars. Besides, there is lack of commitment and morale among the soldiers in this fight,” he said. “People think this is not our war, this is the U.S.’s war.”

Mr. Yousafzai said FM radio is the most effective propaganda tool used by militants in Swat to spread their control and influence.

Mullah Fazlullah or one of his deputies gives addresses on the FM radio every evening for more than an hour. The militant leaders use the radio to threaten opponents, announce new strategies and give orders.

On Jan. 25, Mullah Fazlullah, in his first comments over the air in two months, ordered dozens of opponents to appear before the Taliban courts for violating the militants’ rules and supporting the government’s military operation.

The list of 47 people summoned by the mullah included politicians, parliament members, government officials, other dignitaries and in some cases even relatives of those on the list.

“These people are involved in conspiracy against Taliban. They are responsible for violence in Swat and have supported military operations against Taliban,” Mullah Fazlullah said. He said the wanted persons are hindering Taliban efforts to impose Islamic law in the region and warned those summoned of dire consequences if they failed to appear.

The Taliban spokesman in the region, Muslim Khan, said the list was finalized in a meeting of the Taliban council.

Most of the people on the list already have fled to other regions. However, Afzal Khan Lala, a senior politician and leader of the Awami National Party (ANP), which nominally rules the North West Frontier Province, has refused to leave his hometown in Swat despite several attacks on him, his home, relatives and property. He was wounded once by bullets in an attack, and his nephew and guards were killed in another attack.

He said he is waiting for the government to respond to the threats.

“This is a test case for the federal and provincial government,” he said. “Terrorists have terrorized my people. They need support. I appeal to the army to support me and bring peace to the people of Swat.”

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told reporters Monday in Islamabad that militants in Swat will not be allowed to establish their own courts and challenge government control. But the government’s words have little effect.

For example, to enforce their ban on girls’ education - which Mullah Fazlullah’s deputy, Shah Doran, said was “un-Islamic” - the militants have destroyed nearly 200 schools and colleges in Swat.

Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told The Washington Times that government forces have been deployed in Mingora, where there are 16 schools, to safeguard them from attack and that security forces will be sent to other locations. There are more than 1,500 government schools and colleges in Swat and 350 private educational institutions.

More than 1,200 civilians have been killed in suicide bombings, assassinations and clashes between security forces and militants in Swat since November 2007. Militants have easy access to their opponents even in the major towns, Mingora and Saidu Sharif, where security forces frequently patrol the roads and streets.

Nearly every morning, local residents find one or more victims of targeted killings on the roads or hanged on poles with signs warning other opponents of the militants. The warnings even forbid people from picking up the bodies before a particular time.

“Even security forces do not dare to collect the body before that particular time,” a shopkeeper in Mingora bazaar told The Times by telephone on the condition he not be named.

“Even security forces do not challenge the orders of militants. How can ordinary people speak against militants?” he said.

A spokesman for the government’s Swat military operation said that security forces will prevail.

“Operation against miscreants in Swat is at crucial stage. We will soon achieve our objectives,” Maj. Nasir Khan told The Times. “They [militants] are enemies of humanity. They are a threat to the whole world. Military operations will continue until the miscreants are destroyed.”

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