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On the frontlines in Swat valley

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John Sweeney on reporting from Pakistan's Swat Valley

Panorama reporter John Sweeney reports from the mountainous - and treacherous - frontlines of the Pakistani military's campaign to defeat the Taliban in the Swat valley.

Nine 107mm-rockets slammed into the army base deep in Swat, in the North West Frontier Province, where we were sleeping - it was the local Taliban's way of saying, "Good Morning, Pakistan."

We pulled on our clothes and flak jackets and emerged into the early morning light to see a broken wall and a lorry peppered with shrapnel, its white canvas roof shredded.

Embedded in the wall were coils of hideously sharp metal fragments from the rocket.

No-one, it appears, can say just how high the bill in blood will be

At the back of the lorry, a boot lay in tatters along with a trail of blood. One soldier died in the attack and one was critically injured.

In the seat directly behind me on the helicopter that flew us out of the base a short while later, the injured man - resting on the coffin of his fellow soldier - was kept alive by a medic hand-pumping air into his lungs.

Long gone

Immediately after the attack, an eerie silence had fallen on Khwazakhela base. The Pakistani army unit did not fire back at the hills indiscriminately, but sent a team to investigate where the rockets had come from. They did so knowing that the Taliban would, of course, be long gone.

Pakistani soldier on a hill overlooking Swat Valley (22 May 2009)
The army says it has cut off the militants' supply routes

One officer told me that the Taliban - Islamist extremists who say they seek a more austere society - sometimes use solar-powered cells. They line up the rockets the evening before and vanish. When the sun comes up, the solar cells are fired up, the circuit is complete - and boom - the rockets go off.

In this battle, Pakistan is at war with a monster it helped to create. The Taliban arose out of the chaos following the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

In the 1990s, Pakistan's military rulers armed, supplied and trained the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even after 9/11, critics say Pakistan and, in particular, its secret service, the ISI, was too close to the Taliban and too slow to step in.

Nuclear proximity

But the public mood towards the Talibs has shifted in this country, fuelled by three events that have been widely reported, footage of some of which was shown on television here.

They were:

  • the beheadings of Pakistani army captives by the Taliban
  • the public whipping of a 17-year-girl who had been falsely accused of an unspecified vice
  • and the desecration of the body of a Sufi holy man, Pir Samiullah, along with the massacre in a mosque of some of his followers.

Earlier this year, the Pakistani government had reached a deal with the Talibs that effectively granted them power in the Swat valley region. But when the Taliban betrayed that deal and moved further south towards Islamabad, the Pakistanis decided that enough was enough.

At the same time, the Americans, frustrated with the notion that the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan were being resupplied by their brothers in Pakistan, started voicing real concerns - at one point the Taliban forces were just 75 miles (120km) from Pakistan's nuclear facility.

The resulting military campaign in Swat began in May and Pakistan's defence minister announced late last week that the battle was all but over.

'Almost over'

But that rocket attack on the base was one piece of evidence that makes me question whether it is right to call time on the Taliban in Swat just yet.

Street in Mingora - 4/05/09
Most of residents of the main Swat town of Mingora have fled the Taliban

A second is the memory dates from just a few months after 9/11 when I arrived in Kabul in 2001. It was just after the American-backed Northern Alliance had swept into the Afghan capital. The Taliban, we were told, were toast.

Eight years on, neither the Taliban leader in Afghanistan, the one-eyed Mullah Omar, nor their leader in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, nor their leader in Swat, Mullah Fazlullah, also known as Mullah FM, have been caught.

A third cause for wariness is the numbers provided by the Pakistan army itself. After the peace deal earlier this year, 5,000 Taliban, including a smattering of foreign fighters, entered Mingora.

Terrifying enemy

During my time spent embedded with the Pakistani military, Major General Sejjad Ghani told me that their forces in Swat had killed 900 Talibs and captured 200 more.

Yet I did not see a single dead Talib. Our cameraman filmed six Talib prisoners - one with blood on his shirt - who were taken away by the army before our team could check out their stories.

Even if Maj Gen Ghani's tally is right, that still leaves a majority of nearly 4,000 Talibs at large in Swat.

As to the human price being paid in this campaign, the army says that civilian casualties have been light. We did interview one widow who said her husband had been killed by the army without any warning and we filmed scenes of cars and homes that had been destroyed in battle.

Who opened fire and what happened to the people in those cars and houses? It is impossible to say.

No-one who has seen the Taliban's brand of video - beheadings, suicide bombs, medieval cruelty on DVD - can doubt that the Pakistan army is fighting a terrifying enemy, one which their own government was happy to do business with only six months ago.

And no-one, it appears, can say just how high the bill in blood will be.

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Panorama: Battle of Swat valley, BBC One, Monday, 22 June at 2030BST.



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