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Taliban flaunt power in Pakistan's Swat Valley

'They have committed so many atrocities that they can't give up power, they would not be safe.'

Special to Globe and Mail Update

MINGORA, PAKISTAN — On the back road to Buner from Mingora, fierce young Taliban operate an impromptu check post.

Half a dozen bearded militants, with AK-47s slung over their shoulders, ammunition vests and walkie-talkies, stop traffic and search cars. What they are looking for is unclear, but locals said they are mainly there to exert their presence, show people they have not gone away.

On the main road in and out of Mingora from the rest of Pakistan, passing through the suburbs of Balogram and Odigram, armed Taliban can be seen on the roadside, sitting, seemingly monitoring the situation.

According to residents, Taliban are present in much greater numbers on the side streets of Balogram or Odigram, occupying homes and public buildings with their armed comrades posted outside to keep watch.

“The Taliban have tasted power. They will not give that back,” said one Mingora teacher, who asked not be identified for fear of retaliation by the extremists. “They have committed so many atrocities that they can't give up power, they would not be safe. People are just waiting for the day they can take revenge [on the Taliban].”

Under the terms of a recent controversial accord, Pakistan is to impose Islamic law ( sharia) in return for peace in Swat, a scenic valley and former tourist haven only 160 kilometres from Islamabad. The Taliban are not supposed to “display weapons in public” and must “recognize the writ of the government.”

But even without leaving Mingora, the seat of district administration in Pakistan's Swat valley, flagrant breaches of the peace accord with the Taliban are visible. Conditions on the ground indicate the Taliban militia is tightening its grip, making it even less likely that they will be willing to give up power.

A ceasefire accompanied the announcement of the deal in February, ending a failed 16-month counterinsurgency operation by Pakistani security forces. With troops back in their barracks, the Taliban are unopposed and have no need to function surreptitiously.

The militants have used recent weeks to strike into new areas, residents say, and brazenly loot and rob, including private homes, cars and the offices and vehicles of non-governmental organizations. Armed patrols by the Taliban and their check posts are visible across Swat, a huge valley that covers 5,300 square kilometres.

“The peace deal has given them [the Taliban] a long life,” said Shaukat Saleem, a human-rights campaigner in Mingora. “Before, they could not roam freely in Mingora because there was a [military] operation on.”

During an 18-month rampage, the Taliban butchered and plundered their way through the valley, blowing up nearly 200 schools, banning girls from education and barring women from markets. The agreement with the militants has stopped the worst of the violence and schools have reopened.

Beyond Mingora, which lies at the bottom of the long Swat valley, the district is almost completely in Taliban hands. Residents living north of Mingora report that the Taliban are entrenching, not preparing to disband.

In Bahrain, a small town about 65 kilometres up the valley from Mingora, Taliban arrived for the first time in the beginning of April. More than 50 armed militants, wearing masks, are now stationed in and around the town, with two check posts, according to locals.

“Bahrain was better off before the [peace] deal,” said one resident, who requested anonymity because he lives among the Taliban. “They [the Taliban] will remain and now they will be more forceful because they have the legitimacy of law behind them.”

In Bahrain, most girls stopped going to school during the past week after threats from the local Taliban and most female teachers have given up work. Shops selling music CDs have been forced to close, while barbers can no longer offer customers a shave. All stores and restaurants are compelled to close during prayer times, residents said.

An official from the North West Frontier Province administration, which is supposed to govern Swat, admitted that state officials with executive powers are not functioning outside Mingora.

“If the government machinery is not even present [outside Mingora], how can there be any writ of the state?” said the official, who could not be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media. “Another military operation would have been a big disaster. We had to stop the beheadings, we didn't have other options [than the peace deal].”

Under the peace agreement, negotiated by the NWFP government, Islamic courts are to be established in Swat. After that, the hope is that the Taliban will lay down their arms and some of them will be absorbed into the state security forces.

The militants suspect that the promised Islamic law will not materialize.

“They [Islamabad] can't implement the sharia regulation because they are the slaves of America,” Muslim Khan, a Taliban commander and spokesman, said in an interview at his Imamderi headquarters just across the Swat River from Mingora. “The generals and the politicians are grabbing money from America to fight the Taliban. They don't care about Islam. They don't care about their country.”

But, given the Pakistani military's clumsy campaign in Swat, where locals insist that more were killed by the army's long-distance shelling than by the Taliban, there is almost no appetite among residents for another military offensive, no matter how brutal life is under the effective rule of extremists.

“Those who sit in air-conditioned offices and want an operation here should come and see conditions for themselves. People in Peshawar, Islamabad and America don't know what it's like here,” said Fazlullah Khan, a lawyer and activist in Mingora.

“If the army shows its strength, the Taliban shows its strength; the ones who will die are ordinary people.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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