Pakistan's government says it is implementing Shariah, or Islamic law, in the Swat Valley in return for a truce with Taliban militants in the region. U.S. intelligence officials say similar truces in the past have not only failed, they've allowed the Taliban to grow in strength and numbers.
The natural beauty of Pakistan's Swat Valley, with its mountains, lakes and wide-open fields, was once a major tourist draw for Pakistanis and foreigners alike. But in recent months, visitors have stayed away and hundreds of thousands of local residents have fled amid the Taliban onslaught and a counteroffensive by the Pakistani army.
"What you have is a relatively small, unrepresentative group of extreme militants who have essentially terrorized the Swat Valley," says Robert Grenier, the CIA station chief in Pakistan from 1999 to 2002, and now the managing director of Kroll Inc. "They've been in open revolt against the government, they have been killing local police."
Grenier says the Taliban has also been fighting the army and terrorizing local citizens.
"They've been murdering people who disagree with them; they've been burning girls' schools by the dozens," he says.
Analysts say roughly 3,000 Taliban militants have been able to take on a 12,000-strong Pakistani military force in Swat Valley. For that reason, the decision by Pakistan's fragile government to call a truce with the Taliban in the region is widely seen as a capitulation.
"I think it's being read as a demonstration of the relative weakness of the Pakistani army facing Taliban fighters," says Daniel Markey, of the Council on Foreign Relations, who helped coordinate Pakistan policy in the U.S. State Department from 2003 to 2007.
"I think Washington has to see this with some anxiety about what it says about the army's lack of capacity when it comes to counterinsurgency operations in Pakistan," Markey says.
One U.S. Defense official said the news of Pakistan's decision was met with groans through the halls of the Pentagon. The U.S. has been pushing Pakistan to take on Taliban and other Islamist extremists, especially in the tribal regions along the Afghanistan border.
For its part, the U.S. has increased its missile strikes on the border region. Markey says there are indications those strikes have disrupted al-Qaida and other Islamist networks, which means the militants could push farther into Pakistan, into areas like the Swat region.
"So if you're al-Qaida and you're looking to find a new, safer place to operate, you'd probably choose to move east, farther away from the Afghan border where you feel safe, into Swat Valley," Markey says.
None of the analysts thinks the truce in the Swat Valley will hold for long.
Few Incentives For Taliban
Xenia Dormandy, a former director for South Asia on the National Security Council, and now with Harvard University's Belfer Center, says there is no great incentive for the Taliban to stick to the truce.
"They appear to be taking ground and holding ground. The military appears to be losing ground and has no ability to get it back," she says. "There doesn't appear to be any reason at this point for the Taliban to stop."
The options for the U.S. are fairly limited, says Grenier, the former CIA station chief.
"Clearly, we need to represent to them that we are not fooled by this. That we see it for what it is," Grenier says. "That it means that we need to be taking very active steps to strengthen the Pakistani government and to strengthen the Pakistani army."
Strengthening those two entities requires long-term efforts. Yet analysts say the problem with the Taliban in the Swat Valley requires immediate action.