• World

Can Pakistan Regain Control of Swat from the Taliban?

7 minute read
Omar Waraich / Mingora, Swat Valley

“Smile, you’re in Swat,” reads a billboard on the main road into the lush green honeymooners’ valley in Pakistan once dubbed the “Switzerland of Asia.” But over the past two years, Swat has been turned into a playground for the Taliban. And it may be the Taliban and their fellow Islamists who have the biggest reason to smile as a result of the Pakistani government’s decision last week to end its floundering military campaign there and instead accept the Taliban’s demand for the imposition of Islamic Shari’a law.

Critics are alarmed by an agreement they fear will attack the rights of women, create a parallel legal system, encourage Islamist insurgencies elsewhere in Pakistan and even create a safe haven for a wider spectrum of militants. Still, many locals have welcomed the deal for the stability it promises. “We are happy that there is a chance for peace now,” said Mohammed Tariq, 36, a thickly bearded cafeteria worker who blamed the Taliban for spreading fear and the army for alienating the population by inflicting a heavy toll in civilian casualties. “We hope that it doesn’t fail.” Like many locals, he was antagonized by the Taliban’s violent methods but supports the call for Shari’a law. “The real issue was the courts,” he says. “It took too long to get justice. People are fed up with this system. It’s also corrupt.” (See pictures of Pakistan’s militant challenge.)

The lynchpin of the government’s effort to defuse the Taliban insurgency is Sufi Mohammed, a septuagenarian Islamist cleric whose Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law has returned to Swat with the backing of the authorities. “We will ask them to lay down their weapons,” Mohammed says of the local Taliban. “We are hopeful that they won’t turn us down.” Mohammed’s credibility with the militants is based on the fact that he waged his own violent campaign for Shari’a law in the area in the mid-1990s; he also fought alongside the Taliban when U.S. forces invaded in 2001. Even though he has renounced violence, Mohammed still denounces democracy as a “heresy.” Now he must convince the man who has stolen his thunder — Maulana Fazlullah, whose forces control 80% of the area after a fierce two-year conflict with the Pakistani army that cost more than 1,500 lives — to lay down arms. Fazlullah is an erstwhile disciple of Mohammed as well as his estranged son-in-law.

With the military effort failing to stem the Taliban’s advance in an area just over three hours from the capital, the government may have seen Mohammed as a lesser evil, accepting his demand for Shari’a law in order to help Mohammed win back control of Swat from the Taliban.

The local Taliban, of course, have already effectively imposed their own version of Shari’a on the area. Until a few months ago, the Cheena market in Mingora thronged with women buying dresses and jewelery; now it is closed. Stores selling music and films have been attacked, and though barbers still offer haircuts, they will no longer shave a customer, after the Taliban forbade it.

Mohammed’s return to the area has already brought visible changes. “It’s the first time in nearly two years I’m seeing police in uniform out on the streets and in their cars,” says laborer Tahir Ali. “They used to be without uniform, sometimes too busy protecting themselves to protect the rest of us.”

The Taliban has destroyed more than 180 schools across the valley, mostly girls’ schools but a number of boys schools too. Now government schools are expected to reopen in March, after the winter break. Government officials insist that under Mohammed’s Shari’a regulations, the Taliban’s prohibition on female education will be lifted. But many of the teachers who were threatened have fled the area and are too fearful to return anytime soon. “The Taliban have threatened us not to come back,” says Zunaiba Hayat, a 35-year-old middle-school teacher who moved to Islamabad after her school was ransacked by the militants.

See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.

See pictures of Pakistan’s vulnerable North-West Frontier Province.

Mohammed’s success will hinge on his ability to persuade his former acolyte to end his insurgency. Fazlullah learned at the feet of Mohammed in the 1990s, fought alongside him in Swat and later in Afghanistan, and married his daughter. Both men were imprisoned upon their return from Afghanistan, and it was after he was freed that Fazlullah returned to the Swat Valley village of Imam Dheri, operating the yellow-painted chairlift that ferries people across the Swat river. According to local lore, it was after his brother was killed in a U.S. missile strike on the village of Damadola in Bajaur in 2006 that Fazlullah seized control of a pirate radio transmitter and began delivering sulfurous sermons. “Mullah Radio,” as it became known, quickly developed a following. Fazlullah’s twice-daily addresses preached jihad and exhorted listeners to donate money and jewelery to his cause. He became particularly popular with female daytime listeners, whom he urged to not sleep with their husbands if they refused to fight alongside him.

Lengthy queues soon formed by the chairlift, with thousands of worshippers keen to cross the river and attend the militant leader’s Friday sermons. Swat’s established élite looked on with mounting anxiety. “The followers multiplied inexorably,” says a member of Swat’s Wali family, the traditional tribal leader, declining to be identified by name. “We were feeling Fazlullah was a political threat. What we built over 150 years could just go in one fatwa. [The militants] played on the deep religious sentiment of the people, their economic deprivation and sense of neglect.”

The locals grandees had reason to be worried. The Taliban won support from a section of the poor, residents say, by targeting the wealthy and the powerful, attacking families and driving them out, then looting their abandoned homes. As Swat’s notables and lawmakers fled, young, unemployed men suddenly found status as local commanders with large salaries from Fazlullah’s mysteriously deep pockets. (Conspiracy theories abound as to the source of his largesse.) But the key to his success, say local observers, was Fazlullah’s ability to exploit local resentment at the failings of Pakistan’s venal judicial system, in which complainants routinely found justice deferred or denied.

The Shari’a system agreed upon with Mohammed, says Shoukat Ali Yousafzai, will resolve criminal cases within four months and settle civil matters within six months. Judges will be advised by religious scholars, he says, “but there will be no beheadings, hand choppings or ban on women working or studying.”

Less clear is whether the Taliban will accept those terms. On Saturday night, after two days of talks with his father-in-law, Fazlullah, in a speech carried live by Pakistan’s main news channels, said his cohorts were still discussing Mohammed’s proposals. “We will consult again after the 10-day cease-fire … We will also observe a permanent cease-fire if the government takes practical steps,” he said without elaborating.

Nor is the fate of the Swat deal clear in Islamabad, where it has yet to be ratified by President Asif Ali Zardari, whose government is under pressure from Western allies to take a tougher line against the Taliban. Many in his own party privately express misgivings. “What will stop them from going further?” says one member of parliament who asked not to be named. “I don’t want my wife or daughter to wear a burqa. What if they don’t lay down their weapons? They could be in Peshawar next, or even Islamabad.”

See pictures of British soldiers in Afghanistan.

See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com