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Swat valley divided over proposed Taliban talks

By Fazal Khaliq, UPI.com   |   July 16, 2013 at 10:23 AM   |   Comments

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MINGORA, Pakistan, July 16 (UPI Next) -- The battle-scarred valley in northwest Pakistan, is divided by proposed peace talks with the extremists: for, against and for with strict conditions.

Once known for its alpine vistas, rivers and ski resort, the Swat Valley went from being a serene holiday spot to the frontline of a Taliban march toward Islamabad, 100 miles to the south, in 2008. The Taliban eventually seized power and sought to wipe out girls' education, banned polio vaccinations and forbade females from leaving their homes. They bombed girls' schools, destroying 160 schools and damaging 300 more, as well as killing government workers and destroying 18 health clinics, 43 bridges and 8,125 homes, provincial administration records indicate.

Pakistan's army began an offensive against the Taliban at the end of 2008, signed a truce early in 2009, and unleashed a new offensive in May 2009 after the army said the truce had been broken by the Taliban.

While the picturesque region is still rebuilding after the 2008-09 battles, which displaced 2 million people, new federal and provincial leaders have proposed plans for dialogue.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told the newly elected Parliament May 20 he supported dialogue with the Taliban, saying any offer by the Taliban for talks should be taken "seriously."

Ex-cricket star Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party swept to a landslide victory in the provincial elections in May, after campaigning on platforms that included engaging the Taliban in dialogue as a means to end the relentless suicide bomb attacks across Khyber Pakhtunkwa.

Nadia Sher Khan, one of the new provincial PTI legislators, said an inclusion policy was the best approach.

"War has never been a solution to any conflict. So we must bring the Taliban into the circle of citizenship," she told UPI Next. "We cannot afford more war. It has already brought our economy to the verge of bankruptcy and has caused the collapse of our social fabric."

Local resident Niaz Ahamd Khan echoed the views of many who endorse the olive branch, saying nothing had been achieved by fighting with the Taliban.

"How long can we be in a state of confrontation?" he asked, adding, "History shows issues and conflicts are solved by talking at the table, not by wars."

"We have got ourselves involved in other people's wars. We must start peace talks with the Taliban and declare an end to the 'war on terror,'" Iqbal Khan, a social activist in Swat's largest city, Mingora, told UPI Next.

For many Swat residents, though, talks with the Taliban means accepting defeat at the hands of terrorists.

Abdullah, whose father was among the 2,000 civilians killed by the Taliban, according to Swat district administration records, and who would only provide his first name, said the push for peace talks "reeks of desperation."

"It's an insult to those who were ruthlessly killed by them," he told UPI Next.

"They destroyed schools and banned female education. They tried to stop anti-polio campaigns. They publicly flogged women. And now the government wants to start negotiations with them. This is strange," he added.

Taj, a political science student, struck a similar chord.

"If we start talks today with the Taliban, who openly challenged the sovereignty of the state, then tomorrow other groups can rise to also challenge the writ of the government," he said.

Another resident, Amjad Ali, was also dismissive of the talks proposal.

"Instead of eliminating their roots and curbing their anti-state activities, the government is engaging the terrorists in talks. How strange and absurd such peace talks would be," he said, adding, "What lesson are we giving to the world by bending to the extremist forces?"

Some residents, including the Awami National Party's former Provincial Minister Wajid Ali Khan, say they believe the talks are a good idea, but only under strict conditions.

The ANP, which ruled the province until its May defeat by PTI, suffered significantly at the hands of the Taliban. Sabotage of their election campaigns sabotaged included bomb attacks that killed dozens of ANP party workers.

The ANP-led provincial government brokered a truce with the Taliban in 2008 but the Taliban violated the truce with bomb attacks.

"It is good that the present government is serious about restoring permanent peace," Khan said. "However, we must look into the practicalities and consider how serious the Taliban are in the talks, and what conditions would be set by both parties."

Attaur Rehman, a lecturer in Pashto at Swat's Jahanzeb College, called the dialogue effort "a good move, provided that the Taliban are ready to come under the constitution of Pakistan."

For many residents, memories remain of the last failed agreement with the Taliban.

"What happened to the previous agreement made in 2008 between the ANP government and TTP?" Marud Khan, a Swat University student, asked, referring to the Pakistani Taliban organization, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, by its initials.

"What guarantee is there that the Taliban will lay down their weapons and live peacefully?" she asked.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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