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Pakistan counterinsurgency, hailed by US, makes progress in Swat Valley

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday praised 'extraordinary' counterinsurgency efforts in former Taliban strongholds such as Pakistan's Swat Valley.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent / March 25, 2010

Pakistani army soldiers patrol in Swat valley region located in Pakistan's restive North West Frontier Province on Saturday.

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

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Mingora, Pakistan

It was hailed by American military commander Gen. David Petraeus as a “success model” for US troops in Afghanistan. “Extraordinary,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Wednesday in Washington amid US-Pakistani talks.

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Nine months after Pakistan’s military cleared the Swat Valley of a brutal Taliban occupation, the region has made steady gains in improving security and rebuilding infrastructure. But its progress remains vulnerable, threatened by sporadic militant attacks, stilted economic recovery, and growing frustration among residents at the strong military presence.

Earlier this month, a suicide bomber killed 14 people and injured 50 more at Swat’s main courthouse in Mingora, underscoring the difficulties in keeping the Taliban out of their former stronghold.

Few analysts believe the Taliban can mount a meaningful comeback against the 30,000 troops now stationed across the valley. But their ability to deal fearsome blows remains diminished, says Rifaat Hussein, a military analyst at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

“Militancy can’t return to Swat in the manner it did before, but it can undermine the confidence in people in civilian institutions,” he says.

No more Taliban rule

The Taliban’s presence in Swat today is worlds away from last April. Militants had taken over in 2007 through a campaign of beheadings and terror under the leadership of the dreaded Maulana Fazlullah and his father-in-law Sufi Mohammad (now in custody). They burned down girls’ schools, music shops, and other venues they declared un-Islamic.

The Army reasserted power here through a three-month offensive last spring, in an operation that left 1,500 people dead and 250,000 displaced. Since then it claims to have killed or captured up to 3,500 “miscreants” from the valley.

According to Col. Akhtar Abbas, the Army spokesman in Swat, operations are mainly limited now to search parties, based on tipoffs from locals.

“The residents are fully on board, and most of our intelligence comes from them. Our greatest success has been that nobody can openly declare they are members of the Taliban now,” he says.

Militants vs. community police

To extend the security presence beyond Mingora and into the rural areas, the Army is training civilians to form quasi-armies.

Earlier, it had pledged moral support to lashkars, or volunteer tribal militias, that aimed to push back against Taliban who were trying to reenter the area. These groups sparked controversy because of fears of militarizing villagers, and seem now have been sidelined.

The Army’s strategy now appears to involve formal training of villagers, who are inducted unto “Community Police” units, given uniforms, and trained in counterinsurgency. Freshly trained recruits practice recapturing buildings SWAT team-style, escorting VIPs, and running other military drills.

Over the past six months, as many as 2,500 Swat residents have been inducted into such schemes, and are paid a monthly salary of $120 – a handsome wage in rural areas comprised mostly of farmers earning less than half that amount.

“These efforts are crucial in Pashtun areas [such as Swat] because community police officer knows their own areas best and are the right people to defend them,” says Ifthikar Hussain, the Information minister of the North West Front Province, which includes Swat.

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