For much of the last century, the mountainous region of Swat was ruled as a princely kingdom where a benign autocrat, the wali, bestowed schools for girls, health care for everyone and the chance to get a degree abroad for the talented.
Now the region is the newest front line in the battle between Islamic militants, who are sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaida, and Pakistan’s nervous security forces. For the first time, heavy fighting has moved beyond Pakistan’s tribal fringe and into more settled areas of the country.
On Thursday, government forces backed by helicopters attacked about 500 militants in the area, killing about 60 men, said Badshah Gul Wazir, the home secretary for the North West Frontier province. The militants said they had captured 44 members of the Frontier Corps and were holding them hostage.
The battles are part of what has become an expanding insurgency within Pakistan, aimed directly at the government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf rather than at the NATO and American forces across the Afghan border who have been the target for several years.
Many here say the militancy is fueled by anger over the government alliance with the Bush administration and what is seen as a pro-American agenda that has grown in prominence with the return of the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. She has accused the militants of trying to take over the country.
The conflict in Swat reflects many of the reasons Pakistan has become such a dangerous place in recent years: the aggressiveness of the militants; the passivity of the government and its security forces; the starved civilian apparatus, including schools and hospitals, which has failed to provide the backbone for a counterinsurgency strategy. So grave is the threat that more than 2,000 Pakistani soldiers were dispatched to quell the militants in the Swat area in July. But for three months, they were intimidated and mostly inactive. Reinforcements sent last week were hit by a suicide bomber who killed 17 paramilitary soldiers. That provoked the government action on Thursday.
The widening intimidation by the militants takes many forms. Two days after the suicide attack, the heads of two members of the Frontier Constabulary were paraded through the dusty streets of Matta, a village about 20 miles north of Saidu Sharif, the capital of Swat.
Grim messages accompanied the heads. They called the soldiers allies of the U.S. and threatened to behead anyone else who sided with the Americans, according to Peshawar residents who had received news from relatives in the Frontier area, which is too dangerous for foreign journalists to visit.
Since the clashes began last week, schools have been closed, a vital polio vaccination campaign for children has been abandoned and police posts have been left empty, residents said. Lawlessness rules, by their accounts.
“The militants control about 10 percent of the territory” of the North West Frontier Province, where Swat is situated, said Sher Muhammad, a lawyer who lives both close to Swat and also in Peshawar, where he was interviewed.