Page last updated at 13:12 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Dir: A Pakistani militant hotbed

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Islamabad

Image grab from Pakistani TV
There are no signs the militant presence in Dir has been eradicated

The deaths of at least 10 people - including three US soldiers - in the north-western Pakistani region of Dir has focused attention on a militant hotbed.

The area is home to conservative Pashtun tribes, where religious leaders wield considerable influence.

It is a place where women keep a low profile and where many are opposed to children being educated.

The clerics of Dir have traditionally opposed any activities by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the area, blaming them for encouraging mixed gatherings of men and women, which they consider unIslamic.


There is a long history of female NGO workers being harassed in this region.

File image of women fleeing fighting in Lower Dir
Civilians have been caught up in recent fighting in Dir

When the Taliban consolidated their hold on Dir and nearby Swat during 2008 and 2009, their campaign against NGOs became more organised.

In early 2009, four Pakistani officials of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) were kidnapped by Taliban. They were released after promising not to work for any local or foreign NGO.

Soon afterwards, a WFP food storage in the area was ransacked, putting an end to all NGO activity in Dir region.

The campaign against government schools, especially those for girls, has also been a main feature of this region.

The Taliban's opposition to female education led to arson and bomb attacks against schools in 2008 and throughout 2009.

According to the local administration, more than 72 schools have been bombed out or burned down by militants in Lower Dir district during the past two years.

The army launched an operation against militants in Lower Dir in April 2009 - forcing many civilians to leave the area - and declared victory less than a month afterwards.

Taliban model

But Wednesday's bomb attack shows how far from victory the army is.

Taliban in Lower Dir
The Taliban are active in Lower Dir

It also emphasises how deeply conservative - some might say militant - the area is.

Since the 1970s the Jamaat-e-Islami religious party - which elsewhere in Pakistan has had a negligible influence on electoral politics - has had a secure constituency in the region.

In the 1980s, western parts of Dir district served as a staging ground for guerrilla fighters resisting Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

In 1994, Dir became the centre of a violent religious movement called the Tehrik Nifaz Shariat-e-Mohammadi or Movement for the Implementation of Sharia law.

The movement served as a model for the Afghan Taliban who emerged months later in southern Afghanistan.

The leader of the movement, Maulana Sufi Mohammad, is from the central Maidan area of Dir.

In October 2001, he led nearly 5,000 tribesmen from Dir and the adjacent Swat district into Afghanistan to fight the Americans, who were then preparing to attack the Taliban regime in Kabul.

By 2009, the Taliban from Swat started to assert their authority in the area - and there is no sign their presence has been eradicated.


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