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.

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

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.

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.

Dr. Hussein, the analyst, says the community police represent a positive step but will take time to deliver.

Army overstaying their welcome?

In Mingora, some residents are beginning to chafe at the large number of troops fanned out. They express frustration at the long security checks set up on most roads, which grind traffic to a halt and invite indignities.

Haider Ali, a school principal in Mingora, complains about some soldiers’ arbitrary and arrogant behavior. “They will enter our buildings to use the toilets without permission, they will eye our women while searching cars. Things will not be alright until they leave,” he says.

That may not happen any time soon, says Hussein, the analyst.

“The rebuilding is running into difficulties because the civilians have limited capacity, and the military has to extend its stay much beyond what it had anticipated,” he says. “It’ll be a long time before they can reduce their presence to a mere token.”

Other residents don’t mind the soldiers too much and are simply grateful to see the Taliban gone. Sidra Bakthiyad, who hopes to become a doctor, is glad to be rid of their severe restrictions on women. “We should be allowed to work," she says. "Without an education and without work, what was there for us?”

Signs of revival

The Army has also spearheaded a reconstruction and rehabilitation effort: Half of the 200 schools destroyed in shelling or blown up by the Taliban have been rebuilt, and male and female students are once more attending class. Also back up are three bridges, 15 medical camps, and 75 mosques, according to Colonel Abbas.

Most of the people displaced during the fighting have returned, according to Fazal Karim Khattak, commissioner of Malakand Division, to which Swat belongs.

Hotels and tourist attractions are reopening as well, but struggling to find guests. Swat once enjoyed thriving tourism, with nearly 3 in 10 people employed in the industry, according to Bakhtiar Khan, an officer with the Pakistan Tourism Development Council.

In January, some hotel owners tried offering free board, and the Mallam Jabbar ski resort, once the playground of Pakistan’s elite, recently reopened. Yet hotels remain largely empty save for aid workers.

Fazool Wadood, a former hotel owner, says he lost 8 million rupees ($100,000) in five years and was forced to close his business. “I lost everything. Swat is more peaceful now, but still people won’t return,” he says.

Elsewhere, signs of life are popping up. Mussarat Ahmed Zeb, the widowed daughter-in-law of the last wali, or ruler, of Swat before it acceded to Pakistan in 1969, opened an institute in 2008 that trains women to make regional handicrafts, and exports the finished products. Many of the 530 participants are war widows.

An Italian archeological mission plans to resume work in the region this summer to investigate some Bronze Age Buddhist artifacts – work that began in 1956 but was halted in recent years.

Marketplaces look abuzz with activity, with shops selling everything from fruit to bridal wear to electronics. Traders, however, remain wary of fresh violence and of sporadic Army curfews, which hurt business.

Appearances can be deceptive, says Hameedullah Khan, a correspondent for Dawn, a leading English daily. “People here have been reduced to begging,” he says.

Many stand for hours in long lines at the ATM, queuing for cash handouts – funded by both Pakistan and the US – that the government distributes by the machines. Some find the ATMs to be out of cash by the day’s end, or that their cards have not yet been activated. Though most of the people displaced during the fighting received a onetime payment of $300, the monthly handouts of $12 for women and $72 for families are harder to obtain.

Lingering threats

Though Swat appears to be getting back on its feet, analysts recognize that dangers still lurk.

Since the Army operation concluded last July, Swat has seen four terrorist attacks – a relatively low tally given the rising violence in cities across Pakistan, particularly in the northwest.

Still, the Taliban may try again to claim the territory, says Ziauddin Yusufzai, a private school principal and noted commentator on Swat. “We expected to see more target killings, more of a fight-back from the Taliban, after everything that had gone before.”

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