At the mercy of the militants

Mingora, in Pakistan’s Swat valley, was where the Taliban tried to kill the brave schoolgirl, Malala Yousafzai. I found people terrified that the militants would come back, and almost as afraid of the government forces


The two middle-class Pakistani Muslims could not have differed more on politics. One told me he wished the former military president, Pervez Musharraf, was still in power, while the other shuddered at the mere mention of his name. But both had been educated by Irish Catholic clergy in their home city of Mingora, capital of the Swat valley in northwest Pakistan, and that created a bond far more important than their political disagreements.

Listening to the two of them reminisce about Father X and Sister Y – “He’s dead now, but I met her not so long ago, and she still remembered me!” – one caught an echo of a more peaceful and tolerant era in the valley. Though its inhabitants are overwhelmingly Pashtun, like the fierce tribal warriors who helped Osama bin Laden escape from Afghanistan, Swatis joke that their ethnic cousins consider them too gentle to be “real Pashtuns”.

The valley, a former princely state which was incorporated into Pakistan only in 1969, more than two decades after Partition, has long-standing Hindu and Sikh minorities. The ex-ruler, the Wali of Swat, was a benevolent autocrat who funded schools and hospitals, and welcomed Ireland’s Presentation Sisters when they built a girls’ school outside Mingora in the 1960s. Now the last Wali has moved to Islamabad, and near his shuttered residence in Mingora, a truck bomb has destroyed a wing of a college he founded. The school run by the Presentation Sisters was blown up in mid-2008, after Islamist threats drove foreign priests and nuns to what then seemed safer parts of Pakistan, such as Peshawar and Rawalpindi.

Swat, with its Alpine scenery and the country’s only ski resort, used to be known as “the Switzerland of Pakistan”. Only four hours by road from Islamabad, it was a popular destination for honeymooners, but hundreds of hotels and restaurants have closed in the past three or four years. My hosts declared that it was only safe for me to go there in a curtained minibus with local number plates, and that while in the valley we should use a different vehicle each day. What was once a stop on the 1960s “hippy trail” now exists in a state of fear.

The 1980s jihad against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, which attracted Bin Laden to the region and radicalised other Pashtuns, had little effect on Swat. Nor, initially, did the aftermath of 9/11. A radical cleric from the valley, Sufi Muhammad, recruited a force to fight on the side of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but he was arrested on his return. His son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah, a former chair-lift operator, took over as leader of the older man’s banned Islamist group, which has declared itself part of the “Pakistani Taliban”. It was not until 2006, however, that Swat began to experience the same descent into extremism that has engulfed other areas of north-west Pakistan, such as Waziristan and Bajaur. That was the year that Fazlullah began broadcasting on a clandestine FM transmitter, acquiring the nickname “Mullah Radio”.

Exploiting Swatis’ feelings of neglect since being absorbed into Pakistan, and the growing unpopularity of General Musharraf’s unelected government, Fazlullah proved a brilliant propagandist. “At that time the Taliban had a lot of local support,” one man told me. “Politically it was difficult to drive them out. We hadn’t seen their true face then.” If anything, a Pakistani army often accused of Islamist sympathies reinforced support for the extremists with half-hearted offensives and ceasefires that simply consolidated Fazlullah’s control. In remote villages, his followers imposed their version of sharia law, closing girls’ schools, confiscating music tapes and DVDs and threatening barbers – Islamist zealots demand that men should leave their hair and beards unshorn.

A female teacher described the process. “The Taliban used to walk through the village and say to our men that the women must wear a burqa,” she said. (The all-enveloping veil is alien in Swat, where women traditionally wear the dupatta shawl.) “Then they said we women must wear gloves to cover our hands and socks to cover our feet. Then they said we must not leave the house at all, or they would slaughter us.” If the Pakistani Taliban loathed Musharraf, it hated Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, even more. Not only was she a woman, she unequivocally rejected Islamist extremism. And when she was assassinated in December 2007, shortly after returning from exile to campaign in the election to replace Musharraf’s discredited administration, Fazlullah was accused of being one of the plotters. Whether or not that was true, it was extraordinary that Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who became president in her stead, should endorse a disastrous deal that left Swat at the mercy of the militants.

Zardari’s Government agreed to introduce sharia courts in the valley and released Sufi Muhammad in exchange for a promise that he would “promote peace”. The outcome was inevitable: Mingora, to which many Swatis had escaped during previous campaigns against the Taliban, now came under Taliban control for the first time. As the militants emerged openly on the streets, those who could fled for their lives. Those left were subjected to the same arbitrary oppression as the countryside had felt before.

One intersection in the city became notorious as the spot where the militants dumped the bodies of opponents or those deemed “immoral”, many with their throats cut. But it was a mobile phone video of a screaming, struggling girl of 17 being beaten in public for “misbehaviour” which finally shamed Islamabad into action. Shown across Pakistan, it fuelled support for the military offensive that drove the Taliban back into the mountains.

The violence of that campaign is evident in Mingora. I saw a police station which had been attacked by three suicide bombers in succession, until nothing but rubble remained. At a boys’ school used as a base by the army, every door and window had been blown out. A checkpoint had been set up on a bridge outside the city, near a flour mill half-demolished by air strikes, but heavy traffic had to ford the river below, because a truck bomb had blown a hole clean through the roadway, seriously weakening the bridge’s structure.

With the return of most of the city’s inhabitants, markets are crowded and traffic clogs the streets. But despite a heavy police and military presence, few are willing to speak out against the Taliban. Fazlullah, whom the authorities had claimed was wounded and cornered in the mountains of northern Swat, resurfaced in Afghanistan. His radio station is still on air, broadcasting threats against named enemies and promises that he will return at the head of a new fighting force. Twice, someone began describing to me what it was like during the militants’ reign, only for others to step in and silence them. “We’re all scared,” one of these cautious bystanders said. “We know nothing.” Their fears are understandable.

Given the instability of Pakistan, it is entirely possible that government forces could withdraw as suddenly as they arrived. There are also accusations that the government crackdown in Swat has been accompanied by extrajudicial killings. With the valley’s economy ruined and many facing a harsh winter, gratitude among the inhabitants for their deliverance is in short supply, especially as many perceive the offensive as having been carried out at the behest of America and Britain. Millions of Pakistanis who oppose the Taliban are equally anti-Western.

Washington and London undoubtedly supported the Swat operation. But to the extent that such offensives are seen as advantageous to the West, they diminish the popularity of the Pakistani Government at home. That fact fatally undermined General Musharraf, and is eroding Zardari, even though he can at least claim the legitimacy of being elected.

The US and its allies want Pakistan to stop fighting only the militants who threaten its own state, while giving a free hand to those who cross the border to attack Nato forces in Afghanistan. But the West has to weigh its interests carefully. An Islamist takeover of Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons, would prove infinitely more dangerous than anything the Afghan Taliban could do. If that is to be avoided, it would be as well to pay more attention to the sacrifices being made in places like Mingora.