In Pakistan's Swat Valley, Testing Life After the Taliban

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A security guard inspects vehicles as refugees are repatriated from the southern port city of Karachi to Swat after the Pakistani army cleared the area of Taliban militants

This time the line of vehicles snaking for miles down the sweltering valley — small cars packed with families and large trucks heaving with livestock and furniture — are not fleeing; the refugees from Swat are returning home. After eight weeks of intense fighting, the Pakistan army has told the estimated 2 million people who fled the valley that the Taliban, which menaced their lives through a brutal campaign of beheadings, bombings, kidnappings and school-burnings, is on the verge of defeat. But even among the half a million who have abandoned their cramped, hot tent camps and braved the journey home, there are lingering fears that the ragtag jihadists led by local commander Maulana Fazlullah could stage yet another comeback.

Sitting in a truck with his family, Lal Muhammad, 59, recalls the horrors of life under the Taliban in his town of Matta. "I am a laborer, and there was no work for me left," he says. "When we left Swat, we thought perhaps we could start a new life, find new work elsewhere. What we want more than anything else is peace. We decided to come back because we heard that our house had been looted. The army is now here, and hopefully things will get better."

The very fact that Muhammad feels safe enough to denounce the Taliban to a stranger signals a brightening mood in Swat. Faith in the Pakistan army is also new. Earlier military offensives, over-reliant on artillery fire that caused mass civilian casualties, had faltered, resulting in peace deals that allowed the Taliban to tighten its grip on the valley. Now many of the vehicles rumbling slowly home proudly sport Pakistani flags to signal their allegiance with a state many felt had abandoned them to the Taliban.

The valley's main town, Mingora, bears the heavy scars of fierce street-to-street battles that left roads cratered, houses and buildings pulverized and schools destroyed. "It was a very tough fight," says Major Nasir Ali Khan, a Swat-based military spokesman. "The militants had captured many vantage points from where they were targeting us. They even captured the Continental Hotel and used it as a base. Our headquarters at Circuit House were under siege for a month. The Taliban were firing rockets at us."

Still, despite the devastation in evidence in some parts of town, much of Mingora remains unscathed. Fears of large-scale destruction through the use of heavy firepower, as occurred earlier in the Bajaur tribal area, have not been realized. By evacuating the local population and drawing on lessons from their past mistakes, the army appears to have carried out a more targeted offensive.

Many locals are pleased with the results and reassured by the army's highly visible presence in Mingora. Patrolling troops are greeted by waves from residents, and walls that once bore Taliban graffiti now carry slogans branding them as enemies of Islam and Pakistan.

Back in the spring, Fazi Khaliq's barbershop windows were covered by a scrawled message warning that shaving had been banned. The Taliban had ordered all men in Swat to grow beards, like the Prophet Muhammad, and threatened barbers. Entering Khaliq's shop last week, TIME found three men in red-leather seats with their faces lathered for an expert shave. "Business is still slow," says Khaliq, "but at least now I can shave customers."

Another sign of the Taliban's absence is the sight of women wandering freely through Cheena market, picking through brightly colored fabrics. In the name of preventing "vulgarity," the Taliban late last year had warned them to stay away and send their husbands out shopping instead. "Things are much better now," says shopkeeper Mohammed Bakhtawar Shah. "My customers have returned. But I still have problems. There is hardly any electricity."

While the army will remain garrisoned in Swat, it realizes that it needs local support to guard against a militant return and plans to arm neighborhood militias. A hotline has been opened for citizens to provide intelligence on the presence of Taliban fighters in the area. Says Lieut. Colonel Akhtar Abbas, who receives those tips, "I get so many calls that I can't sleep."

The army's morale is boosted by its claims to have cleared 90% of the valley and killed more than 1,500 militants, including several second-tier Taliban commanders. "The turnaround," says one officer, "came after the militants exposed their own brutality. They damaged themselves by distributing CDs showing slaughtering, playing with severed heads like footballs. They actually staged propaganda against themselves." Those images also helped turn Pakistani public opinion decisively against the Taliban. A recent poll found that 81% of Pakistanis support the military's campaign against the militants.

Still, the victory is not yet decisive. So far, only territory to the west of the Swat river has been deemed safe enough for displaced people to return. To the east, the army is carrying out sweeps, and about a third of the Taliban force that controlled Swat still lurks, says Major Khan. Some have shaved off their beards and melted into the population. Others are thought to have scattered to Shangla to the west or Dir to the east. In Lower Dir district, paramilitary troops are still fighting three months after the military declared operations there as nearing their conclusion. And in Upper Dir, the Taliban squares off against a fearsome civilian militia, or lashkar.

Fazlullah and many of his senior lieutenants remain at large. Last week the army believed that they had the Taliban commander in their sights in the village of Dardial. A sweep produced two of Fazlullahs SUVs, but he was gone. The much feared Shah Doran, a commander and radio enthusiast who issued sulfurous warnings over the Taliban's pirate FM station, is believed to have been killed, although his body has not been recovered.

The Army has made it a priority to eliminate the Swat Taliban leadership, but that goal has proved elusive. In previous offensives, gains were swiftly reversed after the army had punished lower-level militants and declared victory. And as long as Fazlullah and his closest aides aren't captured or killed, fears of their return will only deepen. "The people, in their hearts, are afraid that the Taliban can still come back," says Azam Khan, 21, one of the refugees returning in the convoy of vehicles. "People are saying that the Taliban haven't been killed, that they are just hiding, waiting for their moment."