Can Pakistan Regain Control of Swat from the Taliban?

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AFP / Getty

Pakistani pro-Taliban militants stand with their weapons on a street in Swat Valley in 2007

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Mohammed's success will hinge on his ability to persuade his former acolyte to end his insurgency. Fazlullah learned at the feet of Mohammed in the 1990s, fought alongside him in Swat and later in Afghanistan, and married his daughter. Both men were imprisoned upon their return from Afghanistan, and it was after he was freed that Fazlullah returned to the Swat Valley village of Imam Dheri, operating the yellow-painted chairlift that ferries people across the Swat river. According to local lore, it was after his brother was killed in a U.S. missile strike on the village of Damadola in Bajaur in 2006 that Fazlullah seized control of a pirate radio transmitter and began delivering sulfurous sermons. "Mullah Radio," as it became known, quickly developed a following. Fazlullah's twice-daily addresses preached jihad and exhorted listeners to donate money and jewelery to his cause. He became particularly popular with female daytime listeners, whom he urged to not sleep with their husbands if they refused to fight alongside him.

Lengthy queues soon formed by the chairlift, with thousands of worshippers keen to cross the river and attend the militant leader's Friday sermons. Swat's established élite looked on with mounting anxiety. "The followers multiplied inexorably," says a member of Swat's Wali family, the traditional tribal leader, declining to be identified by name. "We were feeling Fazlullah was a political threat. What we built over 150 years could just go in one fatwa. [The militants] played on the deep religious sentiment of the people, their economic deprivation and sense of neglect."

The locals grandees had reason to be worried. The Taliban won support from a section of the poor, residents say, by targeting the wealthy and the powerful, attacking families and driving them out, then looting their abandoned homes. As Swat's notables and lawmakers fled, young, unemployed men suddenly found status as local commanders with large salaries from Fazlullah's mysteriously deep pockets. (Conspiracy theories abound as to the source of his largesse.) But the key to his success, say local observers, was Fazlullah's ability to exploit local resentment at the failings of Pakistan's venal judicial system, in which complainants routinely found justice deferred or denied.

The Shari'a system agreed upon with Mohammed, says Shoukat Ali Yousafzai, will resolve criminal cases within four months and settle civil matters within six months. Judges will be advised by religious scholars, he says, "but there will be no beheadings, hand choppings or ban on women working or studying."

Less clear is whether the Taliban will accept those terms. On Saturday night, after two days of talks with his father-in-law, Fazlullah, in a speech carried live by Pakistan's main news channels, said his cohorts were still discussing Mohammed's proposals. "We will consult again after the 10-day cease-fire ... We will also observe a permanent cease-fire if the government takes practical steps," he said without elaborating.

Nor is the fate of the Swat deal clear in Islamabad, where it has yet to be ratified by President Asif Ali Zardari, whose government is under pressure from Western allies to take a tougher line against the Taliban. Many in his own party privately express misgivings. "What will stop them from going further?" says one member of parliament who asked not to be named. "I don't want my wife or daughter to wear a burqa. What if they don't lay down their weapons? They could be in Peshawar next, or even Islamabad."

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