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Pakistan losing territory to radicals

The rise of a powerful cleric exposes economic and political failures in a government-administered area. Part 1 of three.

By David MonteroCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 2007

SWAT, Pakistan

In this valley of orchards near Afghanistan, 90 police hid along the banks of a riverbed in March, preparing to arrest the powerful Pakistani cleric Maualana Fazlullah. Informants said the target, charged with terrorism, would soon appear with a modest contingent of followers. Instead, Mr. Fazlullah rode into sight on a white horse, surrounded by hundreds of people.

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When the officers advanced, brandishing tear gas and batons, word flew through the town. Thousands more supporters turned out to further protect Fazlullah. The officers backed off in an incident that shocked the country, exposing as it did the state's powerlessness to apprehend a wanted terrorist.

Such scenes are common in the tribal agencies of Waziristan, where the Taliban hold sway under a controversial truce signed with the government in September. But Swat is not Waziristan: It rests squarely in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), a government-administered area long considered beyond such lawlessness.

The rise of Fazlullah exposes the economic and political failures fanning extremism even in these areas, and hints at the consequences, both for Pakistan and the international community, if the province continues down a path of deprivation. Allow him to persist, many observers say, and others will be emboldened to roll back the state's policies of moderation – small but symbolically important gains in women's empowerment, girls' education, and religious tolerance.

"My opinion is, if you take him out today, there will be a reaction," says Asfandiar Amir Zeb, a former mayor of the district of Swat. "Leave it for a month, there will be a bigger reaction. If you leave it for six months, you won't be able to catch him."

Many observers insist that, if the government openly supports a movement against Fazlullah, ordinary citizens will take up the call. Liberal forces abound throughout Pakistan's frontier with Afghanistan, but they lack leadership and support from the central government.

"The majority of people are liberal. But there is no institution for the liberals. The government schools, to some extent, but they are very [few]," says Wajid Ali Khan, a former member of the provincial assembly from the Awami National Party.

Fazlullah signals a dangerous tipping point: He is the local leader of Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammad (TNSM, or The Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws), an armed militia that fought in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban. Police say he commands thousands of followers, is stockpiling weapons, and has growing links to Al Qaeda – all of which could turn the area into another terrorist haven. The urgency of the issue was underlined in April, when a British court sentenced five suspects to life for plotting attacks in Britain. Many of those sentenced received jihad training in Malakand, a district adjacent to Fazlullah's.

Many are poor

From the vantage of the cosmopolitan capital, Islamabad, Pakistan is one of the most rapidly growing economies in Asia. But Swat, home to 1.5 million, is a reminder that the frontier has long been deprived of that wealth. The gradual death of an agrarian way of life in Swat, following increased mechanization and a series of land reforms that undercut sharecropping, has promoted the wealth of a few at the expense of thousands. With little local industry, residents of Swat have some of the lowest incomes per day in the province, a formula for discontent.

Local officials in Swat complain they haven't received development funds from the federal government in more than two years. "If I had money, I would give [the city] a vision for development. But I don't have any money," says a frustrated Jamal Nasir Khan, a mayor of Swat based in Saidu Sharif, the district capital. Mr. Khan says he'd like to build more schools and health facilities for the area's population, 49 percent of whom live below the poverty line and 61 percent of whom are illiterate.

It is a problem repeated throughout the NWFP. "Since 1977, there has been no attempt at regional equality," says Karachi-based economist Kaiser Bengali.

Although NWFP has some of the highest rates of poverty, illiteracy, and violence in Pakistan, it received just $34 million in federal aid and development grants in 2006, compared with Punjab's $210 million – even though Punjab, by many accounts, already has the healthiest economic indicators in Pakistan.