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The South Asia Channel

Pakistan’s simmering Swat Valley

There’s a duel afoot in a pocket of Pakistan’s wild west, or northwest to be precise, that is ripped straight from the set of any gunslinging, saloon-door swinging, shootout-in-a-dusty-street American movie about its own once-lawless frontier territory. The Taliban and their opponents in the tribal village defense committee, or lashkar, of Bara Bandai in the ...

ALLAM KHAN/AFP/Getty Images
ALLAM KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a duel afoot in a pocket of Pakistan’s wild west, or northwest to be precise, that is ripped straight from the set of any gunslinging, saloon-door swinging, shootout-in-a-dusty-street American movie about its own once-lawless frontier territory.

The Taliban and their opponents in the tribal village defense committee, or lashkar, of Bara Bandai in the Swat Valley are engaged in a dueling poster campaign, pinning ‘wanted’ posters of each other across the village in a psychological war of the words.

Last week, Pakistan’s daily The News reported that militants in Bara Bandai, about 15 to 20 kilometers from the city of Mingora, had warned about half a dozen leading members of the lashkar to quit the body or "get ready for the consequences." The posters were apparently put up overnight last Monday, in an area that the Pakistani army says has been cleared of militants.

The paper quoted the head of Bara Bandai’s lashkar, Idress Khan, saying that the defense committee had decided to respond in kind, printing up its own posters titled "public notice for terrorists" that listed the names of alleged militants.

It would be comical if it weren’t so serious. Something is clearly astir in Bara Bandai and its surrounding villages. In the bad old days, Bara Bandai was a seat of Taliban power, a village adjacent to Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah’s hometown of Imam Dherai, and the site of one of the first clashes in the northwest between the military and the Taliban.

I was there two weeks ago, on assignment for TIME for a story about the growing unease in the area. I visited several of the villages, including Dherai, where a member of that village’s lashkar had been killed by the Taliban recently, to talk to female NGO workers about how comfortable or otherwise they felt coming to work, given that I’d been told in Islamabad that several NGOs were reconsidering projects in the area because of increased security concerns.

There’s a massive Pakistani security presence on the ground, in an obvious show of force, and nighttime curfews are in place across many of the villages. On one of the days I was traveling through the area, the military had locked down the village of Koza Bandai (adjacent to Bara Bandai) and was conducting house-to-house searches looking for weapons caches and militants. The Taliban had claimed responsibility for recently destroying a boys’ school in the village.

The situation is even more worrisome further north in Matta. There have been almost daily shootouts between militants and the military in the area. Just yesterday, six "terrorists" were killed in the village by security forces. Health workers there told me that the situation is precarious, but not as bad as it used to be. It’s tempting to take a measure of comfort from such news, but then one has to remember that in this pocket of Pakistan’s wild west, the baseline for what constitutes "better" is pretty low. Idress Khan, the head of Bara Bandai’s lashkar, said that the fact the militants plastered their posters under cover of darkness, and not brazenly during the day, was a measure of how weak they were. Perhaps. But anyone who has ever watched a Wild West flick knows that a weak enemy isn’t the same as a defeated one.

Rania Abouzeid is an independent journalist based in Islamabad.

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