Pakistani militant attacks persist, test new leaders

Key Taliban figures in the tribal belt remain at large despite 20,000 troops' efforts.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Talks, not attacks: Wajid Ali Khan, a politician from the Swat Valley, belongs to the moderate Awami National Party and won a seat in the North West Frontier's provincial government this month. He says he prefers addressing the militant problem with negotiations, not military strikes.
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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.

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.

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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.

By September, his forces had seized control of almost 60 towns throughout the valley in an attempt to create an Islamic state. When the Army finally intervened in November, Fazlullah's insurgency was supposed to come to a swift end. But even after 20,000 troops swept through Swat, residents warned that the threat was far from over – that the government had waited too long to act and Fazlullah had become too powerful.

Chief among them was Asfandiar Amir Zeb, a prince whose family ruled Swat, a royal kingdom before it was incorporated into Pakistan in 1969, for 100 years.

"[T]he government was very inefficient in dealing with this situation – they should have dealt with the situation in time where no blood would have been spilled," Mr. Amir Zeb, a prominent moderate politician, said in December, suggesting that Fazlullah could strike again despite the army's presence.

Two weeks later, as he was campaigning for a seat in the National Assembly, Amir Zeb was killed when a roadside bomb struck his car. To date, no one has claimed responsibility for the assassination, but it is widely believed that Fazlullah is to blame.

The death of Amir Zeb – one of the area's most respected politicians – crystallized the sense that, in the war between moderates and the Taliban, the Taliban are winning here in the Swat Valley.

"[T]he poor people say that, if this can happen to Asfandiar, it can happen to anyone. So in that way it has demoralized the people," says Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, Pakistan's former interior minister.

Amir Zeb's death has also underscored that military might alone cannot stop the Taliban, that a broader set of tools – social, political, and economic – are needed to stem their growing influence.

There is now hope that the ballot box can deliver these, succeeding where bullets alone have failed. At the polls last week, the people of Swat, as elsewhere in Pakistan's conservative NFWP, resoundingly rejected Musharraf's party and the Islamist parties that have ruled the province since 2002. The moderate Awami National Party won six out of seven constituencies in Swat; the seventh remains undecided since the contest was postponed after Amir Zeb's death.

Wajid Ali Khan, who won one of the six seats, insists his new government will succeed using negotiations, not military strikes. "Almost 95 percent of people in Swat are moderate and liberal by nature," he says, adding, "Pashtuns have a jirga system. We want to solve each problem through negotiation, through the jirga system."

This article is a joint project with PBS FRONTLINE/World, as is "State of Emergency," which airs Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 9:00 p.m. EST on PBS (check local listings). Mahboob Ali contributed reporting from Mingora, Pakistan.

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