Growing Taliban clout threatens Pakistani government

The group controls large areas in the Swat Valley and runs a parallel court system under sharia law.

Sherin Zada/AP
In recent months, Islamic militants have blown up or burned down some 170 schools such as this one in Mingora, a main town in Pakistan's Swat Valley. In this recent photo, local residents examined the damage.

As the Obama administration repositions Pakistan's tribal belt as the "central front" in the war on terror, one troubled spot is fast emerging just 100 miles from the Pakistani capital: the Swat Valley, where the Pakistani military has launched a new offensive against Taliban militants.

Yesterday, shelling killed five civilians, according to Dawn, an English-language Pakistani newspaper.

"The military had cleared the areas but militants penetrated them again and it was decided to clear them again and hold on to it to prevent militants' movement there," Director-General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Maj-Gen Athar Abbas told Dawn.
The army, he said, was following a "new strategy to clear" major urban areas and villages from militants. "There is a new vigour and new approach," Gen Abbas said.

The Swat Valley is not part of Pakistan's tribal belt; it is part of Pakistan proper, in the North West Frontier Province. And yet it is here that the Pakistani Taliban, led by a radical cleric named Maulana Fazlullah, have scored some of their greatest victories, seizing large swaths of territory and holding the Pakistani military at bay for some 18 months.

In perhaps the most brazen sign of their growing power, Mr. Fazlullah's Taliban court in Swat has issued a ruling against nearly 50 Pakistani politicians, effectively sentencing them to death, reports The News, a leading English-language daily.

"The decision was taken at a Shura meeting with Maulana Fazlullah in the chair. Around 50 members of the Shura participated in the meeting and there was consensus on the names of 45-47 people declared as wanted for opposing the Taliban. All of them will have to appear before the Taliban court, otherwise they will face action," [Swat Taliban] spokesman Muslim Khan told The News by phone from an undisclosed location.

The News adds that Pakistan's government immediately condemned the move:

Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani has made it clear that the Taliban in Swat would not be allowed to run their own courts.
"The parallel system of courts set up by the Taliban is not acceptable," Gilani said.

Still, the Taliban's courts are growing in popularity, a sign of the weakness of the provincial and federal governments, reports The News.

[The] majority of the residents of the militant-infested areas of the restive Swat Valley have been turning to so-called Shariah courts set up by the Maulana Fazlullah-led Taliban for the settlement of their disputes.
These so-called courts are becoming busier every day as majority of the people have turned to them, which settle their disputes within days. The so-called Sharai Adalat (main court) is located in Peuchar where militant commanders, including Maulana Fazalullah, regularly attend the proceedings and decide cases.

The Taliban's show of force has sowed fear and sparked heated debates throughout Pakistani society, with editorials calling Swat a linchpin for Pakistan's further demise into militancy. The News warns:

It seems obvious that the militant 'victory' in Swat has encouraged similar action in other areas.... Anyone who had hoped the sordid events in Swat would be restricted to that area was obviously not thinking along realistic lines. The question is what the authorities are doing to combat this and save a society that stands on the very brink of anarchy.

The New York Times reports that both Pakistan's civilian government and military have responded weakly to the situation in Swat, failing even to curtail the Taliban's highly effective use of radio.

In the view of analysts, the growing nightmare in Swat is a capsule of the country's problems: an ineffectual and unresponsive civilian government, coupled with military and security forces that, in the view of furious residents, have willingly allowed the militants to spread terror deep into Pakistan....
Nor have troops destroyed mobile radio transmitters mounted on motorcycles or pickup trucks that Shah Doran and the leader of the Taliban in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, have expertly used to terrify residents.
Being named in one of the nightly broadcasts often leaves just two options: fleeing Swat, or turning up headless and dumped in a village square.

The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2007 on the growing power of the radical cleric and the danger he posed to Pakistan.

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.

Because Swat is part of settled Pakistani territory, it is unlikely that the Obama administration will take any action to quell violence there. As it is, President Obama already faces challenges to continuing controversial missile strikes along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, reports The New York Times:

"The immediate issue facing Mr. Obama as he descends into the Situation Room to begin weighing the options ... is whether he plans to continue the operations over the border into the territory of Pakistan, an ally, that President Bush secretly authorized last July....
[T]he new administration knows that until the Taliban no longer has a sanctuary in Pakistan, the conflict in Afghanistan is, in the words of one member of the Joint Chiefs, "a war without end."
The question is how much hard power Mr. Obama wants to blend into his smart power mix – a question Mr. Biden and his colleagues are unlikely to be able to dodge for long."

While the Obama administration weighs its options, many in Pakistan are counseling political settlements with Swat's Taliban. An opinion piece in The Daily Times reads:

"Clearly, a negotiated peace is the best option but it should not be a synonym for the surrender of the writ of the state. In the alternative, force has to be judiciously but effectively used to restore confidence in a terrorised populace."
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