The Swat Valley (above) could have been like a Switzerland of South Asia.
The reality. The Swat Valley is apparently too dangerous for Pakistan's Army.
Australian journalist Graham Cooke has written this excellent article of September 18, 2013 concerning the endemic problems of Pakistan's Swat Valley. This article appeared on ON LINE opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=15486&page=0
"Uneasy peace in the Swat Valley"
The bus, containing mostly locals with a smattering of Westerners, was taking its passengers to one of the Valley's premier attractions where ice-cold waters, fuelled by melting snows, rush down from the mountains providing some relief from the relentless late summer heat.
Certainly much has changed since 2008 when the Tehreek-i-Taliban (otherwise known as the Pakistani Taliban or simply TTP) penetrated the Swat and fought pitched battles with the country's military. The talk everywhere now is of the peace negotiations which the Government has offered to the TTP and to which, at the time of writing, the TTP has not replied.
Even this hesitation is seen as a good sign – no outright refusal must be positive. In addition, there have been exchanges of prisoners and, for the moment, an end to the hostilities that have raged over this part of the country since the War on Terror was proclaimed more than a decade ago.
The allied invasion of Afghanistan forced the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies to set up headquarters over the border in Pakistan's already turbulent tribal areas. For a while it seemed the very integrity of the nation was at stake as the insurgents pushed towards the heavily populated south, but a rejuvenated and United States-financed military, supported by the highly-successful US drone program (which the Government in Islamabad routinely condemns as a violation of its sovereignty at the same time as the army is supplying the Americans with information about targets) has turned back the advance.
The pacification of the Swat Valley has been hailed as one of the military's success stories, but as many residents were quick to point out, the TTP has not gone away.
"What we have is no more than an agreement not to fight each other. The Taliban can stay as long as they don't make trouble," one stallholder said.
'Not making trouble' appears to involve introducing the Taliban's brutal version of Sharia Law into the areas which they control, resulting in an uneasy relationship between the TTP and the provincial administration.
The stallholder claimed that while the Taliban do have some admirers in the Swat, the majority just wish they would just go away.
"Things are definitely better. I am able to do some business again, but you never know what they [the TTP] will do next."
What they did do just on a year ago was gun down 15-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai for publically advocating girls should go to school in her Swat Valley village of Mingora. Malala survived and has now become an international icon for the education of females in the Muslim world. The TTP still say she and her father are on their death list.
In recent days Al Qaeda leader and Taliban ally Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is based somewhere on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, issued an order to his followers to attack the US on its home soil "using any opportunity you can". In a recorded speech posted to a website often used by terrorist groups, al-Zawahiri said the aim was to bleed the US economically, forcing it to spend billions of dollars on security.
Shortly after the announcement, a fleet of 15 NATO oil tankers carrying supplies to Afghanistan was attacked and destroyed in Baluchistan when armed motorcyclists opened fire on the convoy.
And health officials issued an urgent warning of a serious polio outbreak after the disease was detected in 16 children in the insurgents' stronghold of North Waziristan. Vaccinations in the area were halted after a local warlord allied to the Taliban said the Western-sponsored vaccination program was really a spying operation and threatened to attack medical teams.
An independent national security analyst, Matt Ernst, is concerned that with the US timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan looming, drone strikes will be scaled back and an attempt will be made to declare mission accomplished.
"How can we say it is accomplished when we still have a State Department travel advisory telling Americans to avoid all non-essential travel to Pakistan; when our consulate in Lahore remains closed and when kidnappings and assassinations are a regular occurrence," he said.
Doubting whether the Pakistani military has either the ability or the will to control terrorist groups within its borders, Ernst says that while Syria, Egypt and Iraq are currently grabbing the headlines, Pakistan remains at the heart of American security.
"There is a clear case for an increased US military engagement with Pakistan. What is lacking is both the political will and the will of the American people," Ernst said.
"Americans may want the troops to come home, but the only problem with that is that the enemies have not lost the will to fight and the mission is definitely not over."
As we were leaving the Swat the Pakistan military announced that it too was pulling out of the valley, convinced that security could now be safely left in the hands of paramilitary and civilian authorities. There was undisguised concern among many civilians as to what would happen once the soldiers have gone, highlighted by the death of the army commander in the Swat, Major General Sanaullah Khan Niazi, when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb in the Upper Dir District just hours after the withdrawal was announced.
"People tell us that because Pakistan has a civilian Government, because we now have democracy, [Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz] Sharif will be able to talk to the Taliban and negotiate a settlement," our hotel keeper said.
"I should tell him that the Taliban has no respect for democracy and anyway, being democratic does not win wars."
The Swat has known strife ever since Alexander the Great penetrated the area 2300 years ago. Buddhism flourished here before the Muslim era and the valley abounds with rich archaeological treasures, many still to be properly explored.
Add to that the sparkling streams, placid lakes and majestic mountains, and it is not hard to see why, in the past, the Swat Valley attracted visitors from all over the world.
It remains to be seen whether this land, once the playground of princes and commoners alike, will be left to enjoy the fragile peace which has been unilaterally declared by its political masters."