Swat in Pakistan used be called the Switzerland of Asia, a remote mountain kingdom run by a traditional ruling family, which was peaceful and known for its trout fishing – a place for honeymooners and tourists.
More recently however, Swat has been a war zone, the scene of fighting between Pakistan’s army and the Taliban, who campaigned for Islamic law there, imposing their ideas with extreme violence.
Before the conflict Swat’s lack of economic development was part of its charm.
But poverty and lack of infrastructure, combined with the failure of the Pakistani government to provide education or an adequate justice system, were key ingredients which led some Pakistanis to wonder if the Taliban could do better.
“ The Taliban wanted to get the landholders property and to snatch their homes, they wanted to kill the landowners, then everything would be with us ”
In the town of Mardan I spoke to a typical Taliban recruit – a young man whose family have been trapped in poverty for generations, and for whom the Islamist extremists offered escape:
“The Taliban wanted to get the landholders property and to snatch their homes, they wanted to kill the landowners, then everything would be with us. We could have sold the land and got the money, under Islamic law everything would be with us,” he said.
The 20-year-old was a Taliban fighter in the remote Swat Valley which the Taliban controlled for about a year before they were cleared out by the 2009 army offensive.
He said he had personally beheaded eight people for the Taliban, people he described as “two teachers, DVD shopkeepers, army spies and a police man”.
He told me how the victims were interviewed by the Taliban leaders in a separate room then brought to him in the night to be killed, with groups of machine gun carrying militants looking on:
“Their mouths were gagged so they could not talk. I just said ‘God is Great’ and killed them. They were lying on the floor as if they were sleeping.
“After the interview they gave them an injection to make them drowsy and so they would not feel anything. Then they brought them in.”
He has been identified by other captured Taliban fighters and in turn has given information which has led the army to make further arrests.
His case will shortly go to an anti-terrorist court, but he is confident that he will be acquitted – and he may well be right.
In Pakistan’s dysfunctional legal system even the most heinous crimes go unpunished because witnesses are afraid, the courts intimidated and the police apparently incapable of following correct procedures.
“The fear of the terrorists looms large in the hearts of the witnesses,” Rana Maqbool, the chief prosecutor in Lahore, said. “They have been able to kill a few senior police officers as well.”
Khalid Aziz, a retired senior official from North West Pakistan, explained why nonetheless the Taliban’s message still resonates with some in Pakistan:
“The Taliban is a romantic movement. They are groups of Robin Hoods,” he said. “Their message is there is a lot of injustice and we will give you land, we will look after you, we will be the empowered future – join us and be part of the future.”
This message, along with the anti-Americanism resulting from the invasion of Afghanistan, fuels the Taliban’s popularity, particularly among the dispossessed.
There is now speculation that the Taliban might make a concerted effort to win control of the country’s most powerful province, Punjab.
The Taliban can see opportunities there – Punjab may be the country’s richest state, but many Punjabis do not know where their next meal is coming from and in rural areas there is real despair.
Almost every day the newspapers carry reports of fathers committing suicide because they are unable to feed their families.
I met the family of Nawaz Mohammed, a 30-year-old with seven children who decided there was no way he could repay money he had borrowed from his employer.
He gathered his last few rupees, sent his children to buy some sweets from the market and whilst they were away hanged himself.
“My son could not cope with the poverty,” his father explained. “He didn’t say anything to me or his family. He just killed himself. He was fed up because he could not get his creditors off his back and he could to pay them either.”
Concerns of the rich
While the deprived complain, the wealthy worry.
The leading farming families in Pakistan are generally described as feudals. The Taliban denounce the feudals as exploiters of the common man.
“The mullahs say ‘those big bad feudals, what did they give you, what did they do for you? You are poor and we’ll give you land, we’ll give you water, and milk and honey will flow through the rivers. You will inherit paradise on earth, and if your kid blows himself up he will go straight to heaven’, it is a land grab,” Abida Hussain, a member of one of Punjab’s feudals, said.
The government, which has thousands of troops tied down fighting the Taliban in the North West, feels unable to open a new front in Punjab.
Conservative religious groups have built thousands of mosques and madrassas in Punjab, which some see as a network which could at some point be used to organise an insurgency in the Pakistani heartland.
But Taliban also faces problems in Punjab where most people are adherents of Sufi Islam.
They visit shrines and, with the air thick with cannabis smoke, reaching a state of religious ecstasy as they dance to the beat of drums.
It is far removed from the Taliban’s puritanism.
The Taliban also suffers from having failed to deliver when it has won power.
In the Swat Valley, the Taliban told the poor and dispossessed that they would get land. And they did attack leading landholders – some of whom held senior political positions as well.
But once the Taliban commanders took over estates in Swat they decided they would hang on to them for their own families. They turned out to be venal as well as violent.
If the Taliban kept their promises, they would be a far more formidable force.