Until a few years ago, Pakistan's Swat Valley was a serene, beautiful region known only to a handful of foreign and Pakistani domestic tourists. All that changed with the gradual infiltration of the valley by Taliban extremists during the 2000s. In fact, by 2006 the Pakistani state had lost control of most of the valley. The Pakistani state was left protecting Buddhist relics in the Swat Museum and a few other isolated pockets of authority, mostly in the form of minor paramilitary bases.
However, with the gradual Taliban takeover of the valley, alarm bells rang in Islamabad. Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, is approximately 250 kilometres and a four hours drive from the Swat's largest town, Mingora. (As the crow flies, the distance between the two cities is approximately 135 kilometers.)
Additionally, Swat is part of Pakistan 'proper,' civil courts, Constitution and all. The Swat Valley is not part of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). There is no comparison between Swat and South Waziristan.
|Pakistani soldiers raise the Pakistan flag at the Baine Baba Ziarat, the highest point in the Swat Valley located at a height of approximately 2,130 meters|
Initially uncertain about how to respond to the Taliban's encroachment on Pakistani territory, the state marshalled its forces and acted in 2009. Taking advantage of an unprecedented act of 'Islamic' justice – the whipping of a teenage girl by extremists in a public square – the government lined up public opinion behind a massive military offensive intended to eject Islamic militants from the Swat Valley.
Following bloody street battles and hand to hand combat, the military emerged victorious and declared victory a few months after Operation Rah-e-Rast began in May 2009. The operation came with a heavy price tag: millions of Swatis became temporarily homeless and street fighting had destroyed much physical infrastructure in the valley.
As Malala's optimism testifies, the war was worth the cost. The Swat Valley is open for tourism again. As a visitor to the Swat Valley myself late last year, I bear witness to the Valley's beauty and also its return to normalcy.
Surely, isolated (and unacceptable) acts of violence still occur across the Valley. However, the Taliban has been driven out. Girl schools are open. Women walk the streets alone – subject to 'pre-Taliban' social constraints imposed by the traditionally conservative Pashtun culture. Swat's residents radiate hope and happiness; more so than most other parts of Pakistan. Electricity shortages mean nothing to Swat's residents, they are happy simply to breathe freely again.
Most importantly, an unambiguous and defiant message has been delivered to the Pakistani Taliban by the Pakistani state and people: there is a line in the sand beyond which Islamist encroachment onto the country's 'mainland' will not be tolerated.
One may find many reasons to criticize the Pakistan army, beginning with General Zia's disastrous 'Islamization' process in the 1980s. However, any visitor (or resident) to the Swat Valley can do nothing but praise the Pakistani military. The army has brought order back to the valley – restoring hope and sanity in the process. If Pakistan has only one success story from its war against the Taliban, the Swat Valley has to be it.
View a small selection of my photos from the Swat Valley here.