Pakistani militant attacks persist, test new leaders
Key Taliban figures in the tribal belt remain at large despite 20,000 troops' efforts.
Saidu Sharif, Pakistan
It was supposed to be a simple cleanup operation: send in 20,000 Pakistani troops and defeat Maulana Fazlullah, a young Taliban leader who last fall took over the Swat Valley, once a tourist haven in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Or so the military thought.Skip to next paragraph
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But their calculations went drastically wrong: Although the Army took back control of Swat's capital in November, Mr. Fazlullah and his commanders are still at large and still on the attack.
In the latest violence, 13 members of a wedding party were killed in a roadside bombing on Friday, while in a separate incident the next day, at least one government security official was gunned down by militants loyal to Fazlullah.
Analysts warn that although it has faded from focus in the wake of national elections, the battle with the militancy in Swat, home to 1.5 million people, is not yet over. It has just changed shape – from a pitched battle between militants and the Army to a protracted guerrilla war with no end in sight. The consequences for Pakistan remain high, and as elections usher in new national and provincial assemblies, this troubled valley will be a test case of their respective capacity to address extremism, analysts say.
"Swat is like a strategic arc. It is an area linking Afghanistan, and on the other side, Kashmir. If this is not contained in Swat, it will have a fallout on the adjoining areas and the whole [NWFP]," warns a high-ranking police official in Swat, who requested anonymity since he is not authorized to speak with the media.
The source of the crisis is Fazlullah, a cleric who rose to power two years ago as a fiery preacher, broadcasting fundamentalist sermons over a pirate radio station.
By last May, he had attracted a loyal core of some 5,000 battle-hardened militants. Although locals warned about Fazlullah for months, President Pervez Musharraf's government did not apprehend him. Officials say that is because the provincial government in place at the time, a coalition of religious parties, refused to ask for help.
"Our religion is like daylight. Those promoting 'enlightened moderation' are the agents of darkness," Fazlullah told the Monitor in a rare interview in Swat last May, referring to Mr. Musharraf's policy of instituting moderate political and social values. (See last May's three-part series, "Testing ground: the battle for Pakistan's frontier provinces.") At the time, Fazlullah claimed to be against violence, but his actions proved otherwise soon after this interview.