The New Taliban

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Pakistan's troubled Swat valley.

Pakistan's troubled Swat valley. Source: John Moore/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Source: John Moore/Getty Images

In the short-hand of journalese, diplomats summarily told to return home are "png'ed" - declared "persona non grata" - in other words, kicked out. Journalists themselves are simply "bounced." Such was the fate of Nicholas Schmidle, a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs, whom the Pakistani government suddenly found undesirable after the appearance of his article, "Next-Gen Taliban," appeared in last week's edition of the New York Times Magazine. Formally, the complaint said that he'd violated the terms of his visa, which was issued to a scholar rather than a reporter. Given the timing, the turmoil following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and the fact that his article documented the loss of government control in the areas bordering Afghanistan, the contention seems laughable.

Not so very many years ago, American correspondents assigned to South Asia or Pakistan made an almost ritual visit to a remote valley in the Northwest Territories to file a story about the "Real Sultan of Swat." Editors believed that readers would chuckle over the comparison between Babe Ruth and a bemused local leader - not a sultan, by the by, but why let facts stand in the way of a nice feature piece.

A couple of months ago, the Swat Valley was home to an open rebellion against the Pakistani government by a local version of the Taliban. Schmidle describes a religious court that issued summary justice, bans on music and a spreading movement that tore down the national flag and replaced it with their own. After months of inaction, the Pakistani military finally launched a counter offensive, but the transition that Schmidle documents from the old tribal, religious and political institutions to a younger and much more ruthless leadership is a story that will figure strongly in the years to come.

Since 9/11, I always keep a small TV in Studio 3A tuned to CNN. I hate surprises. Today though, I may be tempted to hit the remote to watch Bud Selig, the Commissioner of Baseball, and Union head Donald Fehr testify on steroids to a House committee. Sign of the times: the event is being carried live on CSPAN and ESPN.

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