ISLAMABAD A bloody confrontation looms between Pakistan's army and the Taliban after the collapse of a peace deal Tuesday threatened to engulf the region in violence, prompting thousands to flee the war-ravaged Swat Valley.
“Pray for Swat,” implored school principal Zia-ud-Din Yusufzai, speaking by phone, as he drove southwards from Mingora to safety and an uncertain future with his wife and three children. “You may say the city has fallen to the Taliban.
“Not everyone could leave. Those who stay will be hostage.”
Swat, about 150 kilometres from Islamabad, looks set to turn into the battle zone where the future course of Pakistan's struggle with Islamic extremism could be decided. A February deal with the Pakistani Taliban, under which Islamic law would have been imposed in the valley and which led to a ceasefire, ultimately broke down, but it gave the militants a three-month breathing space that has likely allowed them to entrench.
The final collapse of the uneasy truce with the Taliban came on the eve of a three-way summit in Washington between U.S. President Barack Obama and the embattled leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Asif Ali Zardari and Hamid Karzai. The violence in Swat, and Pakistan's seeming inability to regain control of the region from the militants, will give an added urgency to the talks Wednesday, which are aimed at devising a strategy to counter the growing tide of militancy that is undermining both Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan.
NATO troops, including Canadians, are struggling to counter a tenacious insurgency in Afghanistan that is known to receive support from militants inside Pakistan.
“We need to put the most heavy possible pressure on our friends in Pakistan to join us in the fight against the Taliban and its allies,” Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Tuesday. “We cannot succeed in Afghanistan without Pakistan's support and involvement.”
While Mr. Holbrooke expressed support for Mr. Zardari, he called on Pakistan to “demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al-Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders.”
Speaking separately at a Washington think tank, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a similar point, The Associated Press reported. He said the key to the Taliban's resurgence in recent years is its haven across the border in Pakistan.
The government lifted the curfew in Mingora for five hours Tuesday afternoon to allow residents to flee, though no official help was provided for the abrupt evacuation. Those with private vehicles or who could afford public transport abandoned their homes. The provincial government, appealing for emergency assistance, estimated that 500,000 people would leave Swat to become refugees in their own country.
Nuclear-armed Pakistan, a key Western ally, is already fighting Taliban extremists in Dir and Buner districts, which lie either side of the vast Swat Valley. Swat is the militants' stronghold, where thousands of Taliban are thought to be established. Washington would welcome the end of the peace pact in Swat, which it regarded as abdicating to the Taliban, but the Pakistani army has failed in two previous offensives in Swat in the past 18-months and any new operation would be likely to fail on an even greater scale, with the stakes much higher.
From Swat and Buner, the militants pose a strategic menace. The area lies close to the capital, two important highways, the huge Tarbela dam and the second largest city in the northwest, Mardan.
With the insurgency in Pakistan growing by the month, fighting in Swat could ignite the tribal area, which runs along the Afghan border and is mostly in the hands of the al-Qaeda-linked Taliban. In a nightmare scenario, it could trigger a sympathetic uprising from Islamic extremist groups based in Punjab province, the heart of Pakistan.
The Pakistani army has been criticized at home and abroad for lacking the will and capacity to battle the militants, but for the first time since the country allied with the United States in the campaign against global terrorism, public opinion has suddenly swung behind a military solution to the extremist challenge. This week, even a hard-line religious group, Sunni Tehreek, held an anti-Taliban march through Islamabad.
One benefit of the failed peace deal in Swat, analysts say, is that it demonstrated to the population that the militants are not interested in a negotiated settlement or fulfilling their stated demand of Islamic law. They never disarmed and disbanded as envisaged in the accord, instead expanding their base last month with an invasion of Buner district. Previously, the fight had been portrayed as Pakistan's participation against its own people in “America's war.”
“This is the first time that the Pakistani nation has identified that Talibanization is a threat,” Asad Munir, a former head of military intelligence for northwest Pakistan. “If we say that this is our war, then we can win it. If the nation is not behind the army, then the army cannot fight.”
Residents reported that the Taliban have now mined the roads into Mingora to block the expected arrival of army reinforcements. The militants also took up positions on the roofs of buildings. Previously, the Taliban had only been in the suburbs and their numbers were much smaller.
Monday night, intense firefights between security forces and Taliban left locals cowering in their homes. According to Shaukat Saleem, a human-rights activist based in Mingora, 21 civilians died after being caught in the crossfire. Others gave lower figures. There was no official word on the casualties.
“The streets are empty. I haven't seen any security forces today, just the Taliban patrolling in great strength,” said Saleem, speaking by phone from Mingora, adding he had decided to stay. “I cannot abandon my people.”
Some 46 paramilitary soldiers remain surrounded by Taliban at the town's electricity grid station. The army denied that Mingora was in the hands of the Taliban, though a spokesman based in the town, Major Nasir Khan, admitted that they were present in “outlying areas.”
“Our purpose is to eliminate them,” said Major Khan. “They don't want Islamic sharia. They want to establish their reign of terror.”