10 February 2014

Eying Taliban, Pakistan military moves into strategic Swat Valley

The Pakistan military is constructing a base in the Swat Valley to ward off threats from the Pakistan Taliban and spillover conflict from Afghanistan.

By Taha Siddiqui, Correspondent / February 5, 2014 

Pakistani army soldiers patrol in Pakistan's Swat valley region in this March 20, 2010 file photo. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced last month that the military would construct a permanent base in the Swat valley.

As the Pakistan government determines whether to push forward on talks with the country’s Taliban, its military is shoring up its strength in at least one strategic location.

Taha Siddiqui Pakistan Correspondent

Taha Siddiqui is The Christian Science Monitor's Islamabad-based correspondent, covering Pakistan since 2012. He reports about rising terrorism, persecution of minorities, economic instability, corruption, civil-military affairs in a nuclear-armed country rife with extremism. He frequently travels to the tribal areas of Pakistan, next to the Afghanistan border.

The military plans on constructing a permanent base in Swat valley, best known abroad as the location where a Taliban gunman shot Malala Yousafzai on her way to school. It’s also the former home of new Taliban chief Maualana Fazlullah – whose forces ruled the valley for two years before the Army chased them out in 2009 – and is close to the border with Afghanistan.

For now, the government’s focus appears to be on talks. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif campaigned last year on a pledge to seek a truce with the Pakistan Taliban (a loosely organized group that is affiliated with, but distinct from the Taliban in Afghanistan) and the United States has reportedly limited its drone strikes in order to give the government space to pursue talks.

But analysts say that whatever the outcome of the talks, the military is taking steps to ensure a position of strength – whether the threat is from the Taliban, or from spillover conflict after the US withdraws from Afghanistan, both of which are considered danger points.

"With the Afghanistan pull out this year and the expected chaos there following that, it [conflict] will definitely spill into Pakistan and therefore currently there are concerns and hence the military base fits in that scenario,” says Professor Sarfaraz Khan, a native of Swat Valley who heads the Area Study Center at Peshawar University.

Shaikh Rohail Asghar, a member of Mr. Sharif’s ruling party and chairman of a parliamentary defense committee, says it is prudent to construct the base because of remaining concerns over militancy in the area and its proximity to Afghanistan.

“We need [the military] to stay since we do not believe it is completely peaceful in the valley yet,” he says. “Secondly, the area is strategically located with Afghanistan and other [northern] border areas nearby, and therefore it makes sense for the military to be based permanently there.” 

The military has not announced when it plans to open the base, which was approved by Sharif last month, but it has cordoned off about 44 acres with barbed wire. Several locals have backlashed against the Army's plans and are vowing to protest in capital city Islamabad if their demands for the base to move off agricultural lands are not met.

“We are unable to attend to our farms, because the army keeps talking about security concerns,” says Zahir Shah, who owns around an acre of land in the area. Mr. Shah says he supported the military’s operation that drove the Taliban out in 2009, but now believes that the valley will not fall under Taliban rule again. “They have all escaped to other areas and there is no need for the military to stay. Their job is done.” 

Hassan Askari, a Pakistani political scientist and defense analyst, says that locals “will have to bear with the consequences” since there are “no credible security alternatives.”

“It is a catch-22 situation,” he says. “On one side the locals are getting annoyed, but on the other, [the villagers] have to rely on the military for security” because the police have not proved able to maintain law and order in the past.

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