Pakistani Swat Valley fighting, Pakistan Taliban insurgency
Mohammad Sajjad/AP

Civilians Caught in Pakistani Army-Taliban Crossfire

May 14, 2009 07:00 PM
by Anne Szustek
Military convoys intended to enclose Taliban forces within the Swat Valley have effectively barricaded in civilians attempting to escape the fighting.

“Please, Please, Please Do Not Call Me Again”

Over the past several weeks, some 800,000 refugees have fled Pakistan’s Swat Valley, where Taliban forces and the Pakistani army are battling. The total number of civilians who have left the region since August now nears 1.3 million—roughly half of the region’s population of 2.7 million, according to statistics provided by The Wall Street Journal. Officials from the Pakistani government and the United Nations believe this number will soon approach 1.5 million, which would make this the largest forced relocation of people in the country’s history.

Squadrons of elite Pakistani commandoes have descended upon the area’s mountainous terrain on a stakeout of Maulana Fazlullah, the head of Swat Valley’s Taliban forces. Roadways have been sealed off by the Pakistani military to contain the insurgents. In all, approximately 15,000 Pakistan Army troops have been sent to the area to fight an estimated 5,000 Taliban combatants.

Those Swat Valley civilians who remain cannot leave the area because of the blockade,  and aid workers are unable to get in to provide staple goods and medical care.

The area’s largest town, Mingora, is now occupied by 4,000 Taliban fighters, and residents are living in fear. One was quoted by The London Times as saying to Agence France-Presse, “Please, please, please do not call me again—they will cut my throat and say that I was spying.” As of Wednesday, seven people had been slain by the Taliban on such allegations, their bodies left to lie in Mingora’s town square as a sign of shaming.

Meanwhile, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday in New York and with U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London on Wednesday, where he asked for aid.

Background: The Swat Valley, Terrorism and the Trials of the Zardari administration

In mid-February, Pakistan had agreed to halt its military offensives and allow the institution of sharia, or Islamic law, in the Swat Valley region. The agreement was intended to end violence between the government and the Taliban. Critics argued that militants might attempt to spread Islamic law to other regions of Pakistan as a result of the deal.

Pakistani officials said that the new system of Islamic rule would be different from the laws governing Taliban Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. One such example would be the Malakand district’s incorporation of a process for appeals.

And in March, three rival Pakistani Taliban groups pledged to join forces to unite against international coalition forces in Afghanistan after chief Afghan Taliban cleric Mullah Omar called on hard-line Islamist militants to “liberate Afghanistan from the occupation forces.” The collective forces have dubbed themselves the “Shura Ittihad-ul-Mujahideen,” or Council of United Holy Warriors.

That same week, a group of gunmen attacked a bus carrying the Sri Lankan national cricket team as they were arriving for a match in Lahore, Pakistan. During the 15-minute gun battle, eight Pakistanis, including six policemen and a driver, were killed; seven players, a coach and an umpire suffered injuries.

The tragedy occurred at the start of Sri Lankan team’s tour of Pakistan; India had already canceled its participation, citing security concerns in the wake of the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Many other countries have refused to play in Pakistan for the same reason.

The civilian government of Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the slain former Pakistani leader  Benazir Bhutto, is largely perceived as being weak. After the March attacks on the sport of cricket, considered a national pastime, many observers believed that angry Pakistanis would finally be goaded to act against terrorism.

Reference: Swat Valley Under Fire


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines