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Pakistan’s Swat Valley Fears Taliban Comeback


Despite the Taliban being ousted from the region in 2009 in a major military operation, locals fear that recent attempts at extortion and a series of targeted killings mark the Taliban’s push to regain a foothold in an area they once harshly ruled.

Shopkeeper Abdur Rahim was shocked to answer the phone in October and hear the voice of a senior Taliban commander demanding protection money from Rahim and his peers.

Rahim and his fellow traders in Swat Valley, a northern pocket of the country where the Pakistani insurgents took partial control in 2007, took the calls very seriously.

Despite the Taliban being ousted from the region in 2009 in a major military operation, locals fear that recent attempts at extortion and a series of targeted killings mark the Taliban’s push to regain a foothold in an area they once harshly ruled.

Western powers want to see jihadi networks along the frontier crushed. The United States has thousands of troops fighting other militant groups across the nearby Afghan border.

During the Oct. 19 phone call, Mullah Akhtar, a commander close to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Mullah Fazlullah, ordered Rahim to collect money from 15,000 members of the Swat Traders' Federation, which he leads.

But Rahim refused to cooperate and told Akhtar that militants were not welcome in Swat.

Rahim says Akhtar then became infuriated and said, "I will blow you up so that even the doctors won't be able to find the pieces."

Speaking to Reuters in Swat's main town of Mingora, Rahim stood flanked by two armed policemen while plain-clothed officers stood guard. CCTV cameras now monitor his home.

The militant movement could not be reached for comment on their motives in Swat Valley. Some residents say they believe the Taliban’s demands for money and attacks earlier this year are signs of desperation.

Since 2010, attacks have become a regular part of life, such as the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai in 2012. In recent months, however, the murders have ceased following a series of arrests by police.

The Taliban have also struggled to build ideological support among the valley's 2 million residents after imposing a harsh version of Islamic law during their bloody two-year rule.

The Taliban have been more active in other parts of the country, such as in southern Balochistan Province, where a faction of the Taliban and Islamic State claimed responsibility for a series of bomb and gun attacks that killed more than 180 people.

It would be a priority for the Pakistani military to keep the Taliban out of Swat, the first sizeable region outside lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan to fall to the militants.

As it seeks to rebuild civilian institutions and win over the local population against radical ideology, the military is on the lookout for any sign of a Taliban resurgence.

More than 4,000 Pakistani soldiers are stationed in Swat. In November, the army began constructing a permanent garrison there.

"It (Swat) was always shown as the example of a successful military operation," said Zahid Hussain, a security analyst. "But the main challenge is to hold that area, and to now establish a civilian authority."

Officials have said the drop in assassinations by the Taliban is progress, but locals on the group's hit-list are less positive.

In particular, tribal leaders who worked with anti-Taliban peace committees say they are in danger.

Fazal Wahab, for example, crosses Mingora's market with a pistol hidden in his coat and a black anti-pollution mask to hide his face.

"I have received no support of any kind from the army," said Wahab, who has faced Taliban death threats for years due to his work.

Local officials, however, maintain that the level of security has improved.

More than 2,000 Taliban fighters from Swat have been driven into mountainous areas across the Afghan border, according to officials.

Local traders have applauded Rahim's stand against the Taliban, but some said they were unsure whether they would do the same if faced with demands for protection money themselves.

"If we get a call, then what can we do? We will bear the decision like a stone on our hearts, but we have no choice," said Nisar Ahmed.

Rahim remains steadfast. He recently started breeding dogs, widely considered unclean in Islam, for his own protection.

"I used to hate keeping dogs. But you need to keep a dog to fight a dog," he said. "They (the Taliban) are hungry now. And like a dog bites a man out of hunger, they're biting, too."

-- Reporting by Asad Hashim for Reuters

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