As a teenager, I visited the Swat Valley in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. It was a short stop; my family and I were on our way to a longer trip in the Kaghan Valley. I remember my father saying he would show us Swat one day. He would take us into the mountains and through the meadows and lakes so I could finally see the geography that had for years conjured up images of freedom and space in my cramped, city-bound imagination. And not only mine: for centuries Swat had been popular with visitors from all over South Asia, and from the rest of the world, not only for its beauty but for its rich history and aesthetic. Like Kashmir, it was once a princely state, and people knew it for its profound cultural dynamism.
I also remember loving the name “Swat”. Pronounced s-waath in Pushto, it is spoken as two syllables, not one, and it is a soft, whispery kind of word, something you might hear in a feather if you leaned very close.
We never did return. And now it is as if Swat is not s-waath but so-what.
Since 2007, the area has been controlled by the Taliban. Education for girls has been banned; over two hundred schools have been bombed. Those who dare to resist the Taliban’s rule are tortured and publicly beheaded or publicly shot. A recent example is the case of Bakht Zeba, who, after criticizing the Taliban for stopping girls from attending school, was hauled out of her house, beaten, and shot. People have even been killed on mere suspicion of resistance, and the killings justified in the name of Islam. It is estimated that 1,500 people have died in the fight to restore sanity to the valley. Newsline, a Pakistani monthly news magazine, reports this month that in Mingora, the largest town in the Swat Valley, “residents often wake up to find bodies of those executed by the militants slung from electric poles in the central square.” The square has been renamed Zibahkhana Chowk. Slaughter Square.
When in the fifth century, the Chinese pilgrim Huain Tsang described the Swat Valley as "the valley of the hanging chains," he was referring to the lush mountain slopes that in the spring and summer were carpeted in fruits and flowers. He was not referring to corpses strung on electric poles.
For the past eighteen months, on the local radio station, the Taliban routinely broadcast the names of those they kill. Instead of the reassuring sounds of goat-bells and the Swat River, the residents of this once quiet valley are hearing the names of those they’ve lost, or those they fear they’re about to lose. More than 300,000 residents have fled. For those who stay, besides education for girls, other banned activities include: watching television and films, dancing, singing, shaving beards, not dressing in an “Islamic” way. Sound familiar? Is this Pakistan or is it Afghanistan? The movement’s leader is Maulana Fazlullah, an admirer of Afghanistan’s Mullah Omer. He has been joined by those who’ve fought in Waziristan, Kashmir and Afghanistan.
Until this week, for the past eighteen months, the Pakistan Army had been deployed in the valley to fight Fazlullah and his men. The soldiers hid while the Taliban roamed the streets, patrolling them and everyone else.
On February 16, the Pakistani Government called it quits. It announced that it would stop fighting the Taliban forces. Swat Valley, historically revered by Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims alike, is now officially recognized as belonging to a band of criminals and their grotesque version of Islamic Law.
The valley is a mere 100 miles from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. If this isn’t an open invitation to the Taliban to creep south toward the capital, what is?
President Zardari’s decision has come three weeks after US President Barack Obama authorized the use of two US-drone missile attacks on Pakistan. At least fifteen innocent Pakistani villagers died. The US attacks on Pakistan were in direct contravention of International Law. But just as the Taliban enjoy their own warped version of Islamic Law, the United States continues to enjoy its own warped version of International Law.
Between June-December 2008, under President George W. Bush, thirty recorded US missile strikes were launched in Pakistan, in breach of every International Law known to the international community (to which we dare not include the United States). Though President Obama continues to be perceived in the United States as a president for change, in addition to the January 23rd attack on Pakistan authorized by him, he has this week authorized the deployment of an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. This is not a change in US foreign policy. It is an escalation of the same policy. And it will lead to more of what it has led to so far: an escalation in the numbers of those joining the Taliban, and in those who are targeted by them.
Since the summer of 2008, those who have suffered the most attacks from both the United States and home-grown terrorists have been Pakistanis. Last year, Pakistan suffered a death toll of over two thousand from suicide bombings. Add to that the thirty missile strikes under Bush, plus the first one under President Obama, and the creeping reality of Talibani rule, and you have a country that is seething with despair.
Is Pakistan the next Afghanistan, or it something even worse? Is it, as M. Reza Pirbhai warns in a recent article, the new Cambodia? (See http://www.counterpunch.org/pirbhai01292009.html) Mr. Pirbhai makes a strong case. He reminds us that the US attacks on Pakistan are not the first time that the US has bombed an ally. It did the same in Cambodia, when, as in Pakistan, those who died were mostly civilians, while, as in Pakistan, the government shrugged. Cambodia was bombed on the orders of President Nixon, who, as with President Obama, was elected “on the promise of change in war policy.” While Nixon approved the clandestine bombing of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong “hideouts” in Cambodia a few months after coming in office, Obama has openly approved the bombing of Taliban “hideouts” in Pakistan a mere three days after coming in office. (Of course, unlike Nixon, Obama openly threatened to invade an ally country repeatedly during his presidential campaign.) Under Nixon, US ground troops openly entered Cambodia a year after the secret bombings. Before the end of this year, are the residents of Islamabad going to see American soldiers in their backyard?
Here is the most terrifying part of Mr. Pirbhai’s warning: “Most Cambodia specialists agree that Nixon’s Cambodia policy drove large numbers of peasants into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, just as Pakistan observers and officials argue the US air assaults and threats of ground incursions, coupled with the Pakistan military’s use of force in the border regions with Afghanistan, is whipping up anti-government and anti-US/NATO sentiment among common Pakistanis.”
Who will reach Islamabad first: the Taliban or US troops?