Pakistan's Anti-Taliban Offensive: The Fight for the Swat Valley

By Susanne Koelbl, Sohail Nasir and Shazada Zulfiqar

The Pakistani army is continuing its offensive against the Taliban in the Swat Valley. Some 2 million people have already left the combat zones and are living in terrible conditions in refugee camps.

Fazal-e Khuda is standing in a meadow in front of an apricot tree, in a place that was once a paradise. Khuda, a gaunt man dressed entirely in white, is gazing toward the northwest where, for the past few hours, the thunder of mortar shells and Kalashnikovs has been echoing through the picturesque gorge of the Swat Valley.

The sound might well be music to his ears. Finally, tanks are rolling through the Swat Valley, there are fighter planes in the sky above, and the Pakistani army is firing heavy artillery at the Taliban. It's about time, Khuda, who is a poet, might say. From their headquarters in the Peochar Valley, only a few kilometers from his house, the Taliban dispatches its thugs to behead liberal teachers, secular politicians and even barbers who have dared, in defiance of a Taliban ban, to shave off beards.

On this particular morning, helicopters are depositing Pakistani army commandos in Peochar so that they can surround the Taliban's hard-to-reach command headquarters, which is accessible by a narrow road through the pass. The men engage in close combat. There is bloodshed.

At the beginning of last week, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik announced that 700 extremists were killed in the operation. The army, he said, would continue "until the last Talib" has been eliminated. In Islamabad, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called it a fight "for the survival of the country."

The Pakistani officers have named the operation "Rah-e-Haq," "the right path." Perhaps they are really serious this time.

The United States government hopes so too. Its goal is to make sure that Pakistan, a nuclear power, actually defends itself against militant extremists instead of merely talking about it. Following the failed peace treaty between the Taliban and the government of the Northwest Frontier Province, which includes the Swat Valley, the radicals expanded their sphere of influence until they were only 100 kilometers (63 miles) from the capital.

Not many people in Islamabad seemed overly concerned, but officials in Washington were. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the prospect of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of radical Islamists has been a nightmare scenario for the West.

There are almost no witnesses to the battle currently raging in the Swat Valley. The Taliban threatens to kill all journalists who do not report in their favor. Newspapers and television stations depend on the statements issued by an army spokesman. The Pakistani military has also repeatedly disabled all cellular phone networks in the combat zones.

The valley at the base of the Hindu Kush mountains, a place of peach groves and clear brooks, is abandoned after a week of the offensive. Last Friday, tens of thousands of people took advantage of an eight-hour lifting of the curfew in Mingora to flee, filling the streets with an endless flow of pedestrians, donkey carts, overloaded small buses, trucks and mopeds. The city of 350,000 had been bombed for days, and water and electricity had been shut off for more than a week.

An estimated 2 million people have already fled the combat zones. The white tent cities with their blue logos of refugee organizations have been growing daily. There is little or no drinking water -- and a lack of toilets -- in the refugee camps.

There are currently 13,000 refugees registered at the Jalala refugee camp 14 kilometers (9 miles) north of the city of Mardan. Small tents cover the dusty ground, and in the evenings men and women sit in front of fires, telling each other their stories.

Map: Areas under Taliban control
DER SPIEGEL

Map: Areas under Taliban control

Fazl Karim, an old man who broke one of his legs while fleeing, uses a wooden splint as a temporary solution. He opens his eyes, looking tired. "Who will control Swat in the end, the Taliban or the government?" he asks. The military, he says, will probably end up signing a peace treaty with the enemy again and allow people like him to return to their homes -- unprotected.

Grocer Abdul Mustaan wanted to flee with his family, but they are still in Mingora. "We are surrounded and trapped. To the left we have the army, dropping bombs and telling us to leave, and to the right we have the Taliban, shooting and demanding that we stay," he tells SPIEGEL in a land-line telephone conversation. "There is hardly anything left to eat for the children, we are running out of water, and we have only a few candles left. When is this going to end?"

The Taliban had set up a training camp in the village of Takhta Bund, 12 kilometers (7 miles) west of Mingora. They recruited young men from the village to patrol the streets, and they stole food and dozens of cars. In the evening, the residents of Takhta Bund could hear volleys of machine gun fire and the sound of rocket fire from the training camp, says shop owner Alam Khan.

A short time after the Taliban arrived, the Pakistani military set up a camp in a school a few hundred meters away. But the soldiers left the Taliban alone. Even when an offensive was directed at militias consisting of Koran students, and the villagers fled, the Taliban remained. "Takhta Bund is obviously a safe haven for them," says Alam Khan.

According to army spokesman General Athar Abbas, there are about 4,000 Taliban fighters in the Swat Valley, of which at least one in five has now been killed. But where are the dead bodies? It is believed that the Taliban militants recover the bodies of their fallen brothers and bury them within 24 hours. A local newspaper, however, writes that the corpses are left to decompose or are eaten by wild dogs.

Hakimullah, a Taliban commander, is sitting cross-legged on a red plush carpet. The house, which is made of wood and clay, is located at the border between the Swat Valley and the Buner district. A corpulent man who looks to be in his early thirties, Hakimullah wears, instead of the obligatory turban, a small, gold-embroidered cap with his traditional Pashtun dress. A holster containing a pistol dangles from his shoulder.

Hakimullah says that he commands about 200 men. But he also directs the Taliban's feared network of informants in a subdistrict of Swat. Visitors who enter his reception room through a blue curtain greet the short militia leader subserviently with the words: "Amir sahib -- my commander, my master."

"Don't we all die eventually? But we are dying for a great cause," says the Islamist when asked about the Taliban's high casualty count. Hakimullah himself seems to feel safe. Although the army and the police control the streets, the Taliban still has influence in the Swat Valley. Hakimullah is optimistic. "The final victory is ours," he says.

Fazal-e Khuda, the poet, hears the sounds of helicopters climbing into the sky and bombs falling, and he sees a column of refugees leaving the combat zone. Does he believe things will eventually turn out for the best in the Swat Valley? He responds with a verse of poetry: "Pain of hell, sweet heaven, the flower that once bloomed here will be gone forever."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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