Pakistan army eyes permanent bases in Swat

AFP , Sunday 14 Aug 2011

Although remaining under army control for two years, new security threats by the Taliban threatens the handover of Pakistan' Swat valley to a civilian administration

New threats risk delaying a handover to civilian leaders in Pakistan's Swat valley, where the army remains in force two years after stamping out a Taliban insurgency and restoring peace.

After years of Islamist violence, a military offensive and devastating floods, Pakistani tourists this summer started coming back to the lush valleys, bubbling rivers and superb mountains of the famed northwestern district.

But if the scenery hasn't changed, visitors from Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi need to negotiate a more recent fixture: the omnipresent uniformed soldiers and beige military vehicles.

In the summer of 2009, the army sent 30,000 troops into battle against Taliban fighters controlled by Maulana Fazlullah, who since 2007 had terrorised people with a campaign of beheadings, violence and attacks on girls' schools.

By July 2009 the army declared the region back under control and said the rebels had all been killed, captured or had fled.

Since then, Swat has lived in peace. There has been no deadly attack since a suicide bombing in the main town of Mingora in July 2010.

But two years on, there are still more than 25,000 soldiers in Swat filling the void left by years of conflict.

Former administrative offices, luxury homes or hotels with panoramic views... from Mingora to the northern reaches of the valley, the army has requisitioned dozens of buildings to house its troops.

Some make fun of the prolonged stay in a beautiful landscape with a climate far less punishing than the heat-blasted plains of the south.

"They're taking advantage. The clear air, the countryside, the luxury homes are better than ordinary camps," smiles Iftikhar Ali, 24, a student in the suburbs of the town of Madyan.

Everyone knows, however, that the army came to save them twice in the last two years: in kicking out the Taliban and during floods last year, which cut off 80 percent of the population of Swat from the rest of the country.

"The army did a lot for us. They cleared roads, rebuilt bridges, gave us food rations, while the government was all promises and didn't give us a single penny," said Mohammed Iqbal, who sells clothes in Behrain, a tourist town partly devastated by the floods.

But the population of Swat, for a long time an autonomous princely state and without any military bases before 2009, is getting tired of the overt military presence, particularly the numerous checkpoints which hinder free movement.

Sardar Ali, 30, a worker in Mingora, acknowledged that checkpoint practices had eased in recent months, but said he was still fed up.

"Soldiers don't listen to people's complaints. Sometimes they are brutal and cruel, they beat people who rush to go through, even when it is for a medical emergency," he told AFP.

"The army should stay in Swat, because the Taliban can come back. But soldiers have to stay in cantonments, not on the streets," said Inayat Ur Rehman, a 40-year-old peasant, a view shared by a number of Swatis.

The army says 80 percent of its checkpoints have been dismantled or handed over to police in the last year. It also insists it will hand over control to the civilian administration.

The army has ruled Pakistan for more than half its existence, most recently from 1999 until 2008, when the current civilian government was elected.

General Javed Iqbal, commander of the area, talked about a civilian transfer within "several months" as part of a "gradual process" in which "several steps still have to be taken".

But it seems a return to normal could take much longer.

The army is planning to move into three or four cantonments, says Iqbal. The construction of the buildings alone, will take two years.

Then there is a spike in unrest in the neighbouring district of Dir, where the Taliban assaulted a police post in early June killing 10 policemen.

Dir borders the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan where a number of security officials believe Fazlullah and some of his fighters sought refuge.

"I am concerned," admits Iqbal. "It is going to impact the process, but will not derail it."

The head of the civilian administration in Swat, Kamran Rehman, says he is ready to take over immediately, but that it's up to the army.

"Maybe in the coming one year," he mused.

But one security official dismissed that out of hand. "My guess is it will take two or three more years," he said.

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