The Swat Valley is a magical place in northern Pakistan where every child is born with the innate ability to batter down doors, rescue hostages and safely apprehend suspected drug kingpins. Additionally, the area's notoriously boy-crazy, clique-y teenage girls inspired the hugely popular Swat Valley High teen fiction series.
All lies. I admit it. But the truth is only slightly more fantastical.
The Swat Valley is, by all accounts, a natural paradise. It is frequently referred to as the "Switzerland of Asia," a description I chuckled at until I found snapshots of Swat on Flickr.
Wa-wa-wee-wa! It is beautiful. To call it the Switzerland of Asia is a high compliment – to Switzerland.
Swat is an alpine wonderland of steep slopes and fertile, green meadows, irrigated by glacier-blue rivers and streams pouring down from the snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains. I swear to Allah, Buddha, Jesuchristo and Jah that I'm not auditioning for a freelance gig at Travel & Leisure. It's an unadorned description of how beautiful the place is.
Unfortunately, Swat's natural awesomeness hasn't been able to protect it from the ravages of Islamic militants and the failed War On Terror™.
During the previous 12 months, Pakistani Taliban militants, led by a man named Maulana Fazlullah, have conquered Swat. Fazlullah and his lieutenants exert their control over Swat's people with the help of thousands of well-armed Taliban militia men and nightly FM radio broadcasts.
During the broadcasts, Fazlullah & Co. list the names of all the people they beheaded that day, as well as the names of people they plan to assassinate. They also use the broadcasts to keep the citizenry up to date on all the latest Taliban-ish rules that all within earshot are now obliged to follow.
Barbers have been warned to quit shaving beards, parents have been warned against sending their daughters to school, and every listener is regularly treated to lectures condemning un-Islamic consumer electronics like TVs, CDs and DVDs. Fazlullah apparently has the only copy of the Quran that bans TV while permitting FM radio broadcasts.
Despite the presence of 20,000 Pakistani government forces that are paid by the United States to fight Taliban militants, the Fazlullah branch of the Taliban spent the last year killing off all its local political rivals.
You've probably heard references to Pakistani Taliban forces active in Pakistan's so-called "remote tribal areas." Swat is not one of those remote areas. It's only 100 miles from two of Pakistan's most important cities: Rawalpindi, the headquarters of Pakistan's military, and Islamabad, the nation's capital.
Pakistanis from outside the area regularly visited Swat for family vacations. Swat was the location of Malam Jabba, the country's largest ski resort. Fazlullah's forces burned the facility to the ground in June 2008. Skiing is un-Islamic, too. Descending snow-covered mountains at a brisk rate somehow offends Allah.
The Taliban takeover of Swat was officially completed last week when Pakistan's central government effectively surrendered to Fazlullah. A so-called truce agreement will formally allow Pakistani Taliban to do what they've already done: rule Swat with their sick, twisted fundamentalist fantasy.
Pakistan's central government is trying desperately to spin the agreement as a good thing. Said a Pakistani government spokesman to the BBC: "It is in no way a sign of the state's weakness. The public will of the population of the Swat region is at the center of all efforts and it should be taken into account while debating the merits of this agreement."
Translation: We tried. The Taliban kicked our asses in Swat. Do you mind if we talk about something else? Can you believe that Chris Brown? Jeeesh! Why would anyone hit Rihanna?
U.S. officials openly worry the deal is a sign that Pakistan's central government is coming apart.
The Obama administration doesn't question Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari's commitment to fighting the Taliban. After all, the Taliban assassinated his wife, Benazir Bhutto, in December 2007.
They did, however, question his ability. The truce in Swat suggests Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies are reluctant to commit forces to an all-out war with the Pakistani Taliban.
If Zardari can get neither the military nor the intelligence agencies to fight the Taliban, it's a clear sign Pakistan's government cannot govern.
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