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Monday, January 26, 2009
Radio spreads Taliban’s terror in Pakistani region
By Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Pir Zubair Shah
PESHAWAR (New York Times) — Every night around 8 o’clock, the terrified residents of Swat, a lush and picturesque valley a hundred miles from three of Pakistan’s most important cities, crowd around their radios. They know that failure to listen and learn might lead to a lashing — or a beheading.
Hundreds gathered Jan. 11 in Swat to watch drug dealers punished. The Taliban also have made it a crime to shave a beard. Using a portable radio transmitter, a local Taliban leader, Shah Doran, on most nights outlines newly proscribed “un-Islamic” activities in Swat, like selling DVDs, watching cable television, singing and dancing, criticizing the Taliban, shaving beards and allowing girls to attend school. He also reveals names of people the Taliban have recently killed for violating their decrees — and those they plan to kill.
“They control everything through the radio,” said one Swat resident, who declined to give his name for fear the Taliban might kill him. “Everyone waits for the broadcast.”
International attention remains fixed on the Taliban’s hold on Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal areas, from where they launch attacks on American forces in Afghanistan. But for Pakistan, the loss of the Swat Valley could prove just as devastating.
Unlike the fringe tribal areas, Swat, a Delaware-size chunk of territory with 1.3 million residents and a rich cultural history, is part of Pakistan proper, within reach of Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the capital.
After more than a year of fighting, virtually all of it is now under Taliban control, marking the militants’ farthest advance eastward into Pakistan’s so-called settled areas, residents and government officials from the region say.
With the increasing consolidation of their power, the Taliban have taken a sizable bite out of the nation. And they are enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam with cruelty, bringing public beheadings, assassinations, social and cultural repression and persecution of women to what was once an independent, relatively secular region, dotted with ski resorts and fruit orchards and known for its dancing girls.
Last year, 70 police officers were beheaded, shot or otherwise slain in Swat, and 150 wounded, said Malik Naveed Khan, the police inspector general for the North-West Frontier Province.
The police have become so afraid that many officers have put advertisements in newspapers renouncing their jobs so the Taliban will not kill them.
One who stayed on the job was Farooq Khan, a midlevel officer in Mingora, the valley’s largest city, where decapitated bodies of policemen and other victims routinely surface. Last month, he was shopping there when two men on a motorcycle sprayed him with gunfire, killing him in broad daylight.
“He always said, ‘I have to stay here and defend our home,’ “ recalled his brother, Wajid Ali Khan, a Swat native and the province’s minister for environment, as he passed around a cellphone with Farooq’s picture.
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.
The crisis has become a critical test for the government of the civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari, and for a security apparatus whose loyalties, many Pakistanis say, remain in question.
Seeking to deflect blame, Zardari’s government recently criticized “earlier halfhearted attempts at rooting out extremists from the area” and vowed to fight militants “who are ruthlessly murdering and maiming our citizens.”
But as pressure grows, he has also said in recent days that the government would be willing to talk with militants who accept its authority. Such negotiations would carry serious risks: security officials say a brief peace deal in Swat last spring was a spectacular failure that allowed militants to tighten their hold and take revenge on people who had supported the military.
Without more forceful and concerted action by the government, some warn, the Taliban threat in Pakistan is bound to spread.
“The crux of the problem is the government appears divided about what to do,” said Mahmood Shah, a retired Pakistani Army brigadier who until 2006 was in charge of security in the western tribal areas. “This disconnect among the political leadership has emboldened the militants.”
From 2,000 to 4,000 Taliban fighters now roam the Swat Valley, according to interviews with a half-dozen senior Pakistani government, military and political officials involved in the fight. By contrast, the Pakistani military has four brigades with 12,000 to 15,000 men in Swat, officials say.
The Taliban are thought to be responsible for the killing of a popular Swat Valley dancing girl, Shabana, whose body, above, was found Jan. 2 in Mingora. The Taliban have made gains in the strategic region, in part by meting out harsh punishments.
But the soldiers largely stay inside their camps, unwilling to patrol or exert any large presence that might provoke — or discourage — the militants, Swat residents and political leaders say. The military also has not raided a small village that locals say is widely known as the Taliban’s headquarters in Swat.
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.
When the army does act, its near-total lack of preparedness to fight a counterinsurgency reveals itself. Its usual tactic is to lob artillery shells into a general area, and the results have seemed to hurt civilians more than the militants, residents say.
In some parts of Pakistan, civilian militias have risen to fight the Taliban. But in Swat, the Taliban’s gains amid a large army presence has convinced many that the military must be conspiring with the Taliban.
“It’s very mysterious how they get so much weapons and support,” while nearby districts are comparatively calm, said Muzaffar ul-Mulk Khan, a member of Parliament from Swat, who said his home near Mingora was recently destroyed by the Taliban.
“We are bewildered by the military. They patrol only in Mingora. In the rest of Swat they sit in their bases. And the militants can kill at will anywhere in Mingora,” he said.
“Nothing is being done by the government,” Khan added.
Accusations that the military lacks the will to fight in Swat are “very unfair and unjustified,” said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the chief military spokesman, who said 180 army soldiers and officers had been killed in Swat in the past 14 months.
“They do reach out, and they do patrol,” he said.
Military officials also say they are trying to step up activity in Swat.
General Abbas said the military did not have the means to block Taliban radio transmissions across such a wide area, but he disputed the view that Mingora had fallen to the militants.
“Just because they come out at night and throw down four or five bodies in the square does not mean that militants control anything,” he said.
Few officials would dispute that one of the Pakistani military’s biggest mistakes in Swat was its failure to protect Pir Samiullah, a local leader whose 500 followers fought the Taliban in the village of Mandal Dag. After the Taliban killed him in a firefight last month, the militants demanded that his followers reveal his gravesite — and then started beheading people until they got the information, one Mandal Dag villager said.
“They dug him up and hung his body in the square,” the villager said, and then they took the body to a secret location. The desecration was intended to show what would happen to anyone who defied the Taliban’s rule, but it also made painfully clear to Swat residents that the Pakistani government could not be trusted to defend those who rose up against the militants.
“He should have been given more protection,” said one Pakistani security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the subject. “He should have been made a symbol of resistance.”
Gruesome displays like the defilement of Pir Samiullah’s remains are an effective tactic for the Taliban, who have shown cruel efficiency in following through on their threats.
Recently, Shah Doran broadcast word that the Taliban intended to kill a police officer who he said had killed three people.
“We have sent people, and tomorrow you will have good news,” he said on his nightly broadcast, according to a resident of Matta, a Taliban stronghold. The next day the decapitated body of the policeman was found in a nearby village.
Even in Mingora, a town grown hardened to violence, residents were shocked early this month to find the bullet-ridden body of one of the city’s most famous dancing girls splayed on the main square.
Known as Shabana, the woman was visited at night by a group of men who claimed to want to hire her for a party. They shot her to death and dragged her body more than a quarter-mile to the central square, leaving it as a warning for anyone who would flout Taliban decrees.
The leader of the militants in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, gained prominence from making radio broadcasts and running an Islamic school, becoming popular among otherwise isolated homemakers and inspiring them to sell their jewelry to finance his operation. He also drew support from his marriage to the daughter of Sufi Mohammed, a powerful religious leader in Swat until 2001 who later disowned his son-in-law.
Even though Swat does not border Afghanistan or any of Pakistan’s seven lawless federal tribal areas, Maulana Fazlullah eventually allied with Taliban militants who dominate regions along the Afghan frontier.
His fighters now roam the valley with sniper rifles, Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortar tubes and, according to some officials, night-vision goggles and flak vests.
His latest tactic is a ban on girls’ attending school in Swat, which will be tested in February when private schools are scheduled to reopen after winter recess. The Taliban have already destroyed 169 girls’ schools in Swat, government officials say, and they expect most private schools to stay closed rather than risk retaliation.
“The local population is totally fed up, and if they had the chance they would lynch each and every Talib,” said Naveed Khan, the police official. “But the Taliban are so cruel and violent, no one will oppose them. If this is not stopped, it will spill into other areas of Pakistan.”