Thousands of Islamist militants are pouring into Pakistan's Swat Valley and setting up training camps here, quickly making it one of the main bases for Taliban fighters and raising their threat to the government in the wake of a controversial peace deal.
President Asif Ali Zardari effectively ratified the government's deal with the Taliban Monday by signing a bill that imposes Islamic law in Swat, a key plank of the accord, hours after legislators overwhelmingly approved a resolution urging it. Pakistani officials have touted the deal, reached in February, as a way to restore peaceful order in the bloodied region -- which lies just a few hours' drive from the capital -- and halt the Taliban's advance.
Yet a visit to the Taliban-controlled valley here found mounting evidence that the deal already is strengthening the militants as a base for war. U.S. officials contend the pact has given the Taliban and its allies in al Qaeda and other Islamist groups an advantage in their long-running battle against Pakistan's military.
The number of militants in the valley swelled in the months before the deal with the Taliban was struck, and they continue to move in, say Pakistani and U.S. officials. They now estimate there are between 6,000 and 8,000 fighters in Swat, nearly double the number at the end of last year.
And as the NY Times reports, these militants do not seem to be content to merely rule the Swat, and are allying with other Pakistani militants to spread violence to the heart of Pakistan:
Taliban insurgents are teaming up with local militant groups to make inroads in Punjab, the province that is home to more than half of Pakistanis, reinvigorating an alliance that Pakistani and American authorities say poses a serious risk to the stability of the country.
The deadly assault in March in Lahore, Punjab’s capital, against the Sri Lankan cricket team, and the bombing last fall of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, the national capital, were only the most spectacular examples of the joint campaign, they said.
Now police officials, local residents and analysts warn that if the government does not take decisive action, these dusty, impoverished fringes of Punjab could be the next areas facing the insurgency. American intelligence and counterterrorism officials also said they viewed the developments with alarm.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand the gravity of the issue,” said a senior police official in Punjab, who declined to be idenfitied because he was discussing threats to the state. “If you want to destabilize Pakistan, you have to destabilize Punjab.”
Pakistani Intelligence has long played the Taliban to their advantage in their efforts to influence Afghanistan and bleed off their own homegrown militants. It would seem now that the situation is completely out of their control.