MINGORA, Pakistan – The Taliban's horrific attack on a female teenage activist in this scenic corner of Pakistan's northwest was the latest in a series of assassination attempts by militant sleeper cells in the area over the last year, each carried out with targeted shots to the head.
The insurgents activated their networks in the Swat Valley to take advantage of the army's decision to reduce its presence and accelerate the transition of security and governance to civilian authorities in the wake of a big offensive in 2009 to push out the Taliban.
The valley is in little danger of falling under the militants' control again anytime soon. But the resurgent threat raises questions about the army's ability to hand over control to civilians in Swat and other areas of the northwest where soldiers are fighting the Taliban, a fundamental part of the military's counterterror strategy.
Building effective civilian government and law enforcement is not only critical so the military can withdraw, but also to address local grievances related to development and justice that can fuel support for the insurgents.
The Taliban shot and wounded 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai as she was heading home from school in Swat's main town of Mingora on Oct. 9. The militants targeted the girl because she was an outspoken opponent of the group and promoted "Western thinking," such as girls' education.
The militants have carried out at least half a dozen other assassination attempts against their opponents in Swat since the end of last year, killing four people and wounding several others, said security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Haji Zahid Khan, a member of a major tribal council in Swat, was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman in August but managed to survive. Khan criticized the army and police for not taking his case seriously enough, which he believes emboldened the militants.
"Had they arrested the culprits in my case, the network that was working could have been traced," said Khan. "The Malala incident could not have happened."
Investigations into the shootings indicated the attackers came from Afghanistan, where many militants fled following the army offensive in 2009, said Kamran Rehman Khan, the top government official in Swat. The militants worked with networks of sympathizers in Swat who provided weapons, ammunition, cell phones and other logistical support, he said.
The insurgents activated their networks to take advantage of the army's decision to reduce its presence in Swat. The military has decreased the 40 checkpoints it had in the area by almost half in the last year, although the number of troops in the valley has stayed the same, said Khan, the senior government official.
The army launched its offensive in Swat in the spring of 2009 with about 25,000 troops and originally planned to hand over control to civilian authorities and pull out over a period of about two years. That hasn't happened because the civilians haven't proven capable of handling security, say military officials.
The number of police in Swat has more than doubled to about 3,700, said Khan, but police in the country routinely lack sufficient resources and would likely have trouble keeping the militants at bay.
For this reason, the army still has about 12,500 soldiers in Swat and has plans to build permanent bases for some of them. The military hopes to reduce the number of troops by 50 percent next year, but experts are doubtful.
"The civilians don't feel confident enough to manage the area in the absence of the military, so the military will stay," said Pakistani defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
The inability to pass the baton to civilians in Swat raises questions about what the military plans to do in the adjacent tribal region, which serves as the main sanctuary for the Taliban in the country and is even less developed than Swat. The army has over 100,000 troops fighting in the semiautonomous region, and the experience in Swat indicates the generals will have difficulty pulling them out.
"I don't think they will be able to withdraw easily from the tribal areas because they have not been able to control them successfully and there is hardly any civilian structure to hand off to in these areas," said Rizvi.
The military may be more effective at handling security, but there are concerns its long-term presence could fuel resentment that could be exploited by the militants. Human rights organizations have accused the army of rounding up scores of suspected militants in Swat since the 2009 offensive and never producing them in court — allegations denied by the military. The practice "can create hatred against the army," said Khan, the tribal council member.
But that doesn't necessarily mean residents want the military to leave. Even with the recent attacks, security in Swat is far better than it was a few years ago when the Taliban routinely beheaded people and left them in the streets as a warning.
"If the army goes," said Dolat Khan, a drugstore owner in Swat, "there could be a civil war."
Abbot reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report from Islamabad.