On a sunny afternoon last fall, I took a Chinook helicopter flight to the grounds of a former boarding school in Pakistan's Swat Valley, where I drank chai with a Pashto-speaking Special Services Group commando. In the meadow where we sat, the air was filled with the scent of valley flowers. Yet this idyllic place, the commando told me, had once been controlled by militants.
"What was it like under the Taliban?" I asked.
"Simple," he said. "Just three words: H-E-L-L."
His arithmetic may have been imprecise, but the message was clear: The Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which intermittently ruled this verdant, lush region of about 4,000 square miles from 2007 to 2009, held it with an iron fist, lashing people in public and posting "Taliban" signs outside police stations. Then they were thoroughly routed -- or at least it seemed so at the time. The Pakistani Army started an ambitious, U.S.-backed counterinsurgency effort against the TTP in the spring of 2009, the first operation of its kind in the country. The campaign was held up both in Pakistan and abroad as a model of military tactics: "They have done quite impressive operations in Swat Valley," U.S. Gen. David Petraeus told NPR in December 2009. In a hopeful sign that the counterinsurgency has made progress in suppressing the TTP, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn recently reported that the military is starting to turn over responsibility for the security of Swat to local police officials.
Talking to Pakistani Army officials, you get more of this rosy picture: The TTP has been pushed out; Swat is rebuilding; Pakistan has perfected its counterinsurgency tactics. And the United States has banked heavily on Pakistan's counterinsurgency program, appropriating $1.2 billion for a Pakistani counterinsurgency fund and training Pakistani officers in the doctrine.
But the reality of the last year in Swat is quite different. Instead of curing the disease, Pakistan's supposed counterinsurgency attack has in some ways only fed it. And America is continuing to funnel money to a government with no intention of using it to fight the terrorists in its midst. Talk to people like the Swat commando, and it's clear that plenty of Pakistanis in the Swat Valley and elsewhere truly want the area to remain peaceful and for the terrorist attacks that have been roiling the rest of the country to stop. No one wants to go back to hell. So why is the Swat Valley -- and Pakistan -- having so much trouble avoiding doing that?
The problems in the Swat Valley started in October 2007, when a TTP commander named Maulana Fazlullah took over Mingora, the largest city in the area, and began a reign of terror, assassinating "medical staff for administering polio vaccines to children" and hanging bodies from trees and in busy roundabouts, according to a June 2009 report from the Islamabad Policy Research Institute. In November 2007, the Pakistani military sent five brigades, 17 infantry battalions, and five artillery regiments into Swat Valley and drove out the TTP. Then the military left and the TTP returned; once again the military plowed back in again. Over the next two years, this cycle of "blow up; patch up; blow up" repeated itself several times, as Haider Ali Hussein Mullick wrote in a report last year for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.