Pakistan Fights For Control Of Swat Valley

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Pakistan is battling the Taliban for control in the Swat Valley and the impact the fight is having on the people who live there. Many refugees are fleeing the fighting.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

In Pakistan's Swat Valley, the army says that it has made some very important gains. Government forces claim to have seized some areas of the Valley's largest city, Mingora.

NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us from Islamabad.

And Julie, the Swat Valley is a very big place. What's the significance of recapturing the city of Mingora?

JULIE MCCARTHY: Mingora is vital because the militants flagrantly control it with their harsh version of Islam. In fact, one of the spots that the army says it has regained is the so-called Slaughter Square. That's where the Taliban would dump the bodies of beheaded victims to intimidate the local population. So, a victory for government forces in Mingora would be psychologically significant, but also militarily significant.

A victory over the Taliban there with few civilian casualties, and that would be key, would signal that the Pakistan army is capable of waging a counter-insurgency in an urban setting and in a place like Swat Valley, which is vulnerable to extremism because of its proximity to the lawless Pakistan-Afghan border where the Taliban and al-Qaida are dug in.

SIEGEL: And what are you actually hearing about the gains that the army has made or has claimed in Mingora?

MCCARTHY: Well, what we're hearing is that they have retaken what they say are eight positions and they found big caches of ammunition. And they're feeling robust about it, but they do say it's going to be painfully slow. This is going to take a long time because it is now turned into a street-for-street battle, house-for-house search.

SIEGEL: Now, there are more than two million people who have been displaced by the fighting in the Swat Valley. You have been reporting on what's happening in the camps where they're now living. What do you hear? Are people at all hopeful of going back to their homes any time soon?

MCCARTHY: Well, there is hope, but the expectation is something, I think, quite different. And, again, I think this all goes back to the pressure on the army. You have now, we are in day 29 of an offensive, and in that short time, officials say you've got 2.4 million people who've been driven from their homes by the fighting. And the aid groups are warning of this humanitarian disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled Mingora alone.

Many of those people were relatively well-off before, and now they've got nothing: no home, no income, all they have is charity. So, this displacement on a mass scale could turn into mass anger. And to counter any sense that this operation might not be worth it, the army needs some tangible success on the ground.

SIEGEL: Yeah, without such successes, these people simply could be left in the camps for the duration, you're saying.

MCCARTHY: Well, that's right, Robert. I mean, thousands of them are going to have to try to survive the grueling summer heat in overcrowded camps. The rest are going to have to make do in overcrowded homes of their relatives, or just fend for themselves.

Heat really is a big issue. The children are dying in the camps of dehydration, the infants are. And the outbreaks of disease are looming because of bad sanitation, not enough water. You know, even though the aid is flowing in, the flood of refugees is so overwhelming that even battle-hardened U.N. agencies, who are used to human disasters, are dismayed by it.

SIEGEL: Julie, this Pakistani government offensive in the Swat Valley is something that the U.S. wanted to see. It wanted to see Pakistan take on the Taliban. U.S. would also like to see Pakistan take on the Taliban in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. Does that seem at all possible?

MCCARTHY: Well, you know, interestingly, Robert, there are signs even tonight that that conflict is widening to the border regions where the Taliban is well-entrenched. President Asif Zardari denied saying that the frontier was next. But I was speaking tonight with someone who had just fled the border who said people are streaming out of South Waziristan, which lies along the border, to avoid what they think is a looming battle, whether the president denies it or not.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Julie McCarthy speaking with us from Islamabad. Thank you, Julie.

McCARTHY: Thank you, Robert.

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