Mingora, Pakistan – Five years after a military operation to retake the area from the control of Taliban fighters, Pakistan’s northwestern Swat Valley still appears to be struggling to get back on its feet.
The economy of this mountainous area, spread out over a valley stretching about 130km, depends primarily on fruit farming and tourism. Swat, with its lush green mountains, snow-capped peaks and numerous streams and rivers was long a tourist haven for Pakistanis, known locally as “the Switzerland of Pakistan”.
All of that changed, however, when Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s local Swat chapter, then led by Mullah Fazlullah, a hardline local cleric, took control of the valley from 2007 to 2009: the valley became a no-go area for outsiders, as the TTP enforced its strict, authoritarian version of Islamic law on the populace.
Many of Swat’s orchards, too, were badly affected, local residents say. Swat supplies Pakistan with peaches, persimmons (known locally as “Japanese fruit”), apples, oranges and a range of other fruits. Under the Taliban, however, local agriculturalists told Al Jazeera that many orchards were torched, or destroyed in the two military operations launched to retake the valley, in 2007 and 2009.
Output from Swat’s fruit farms was worth as high as $88.5m per year before the conflict started, but according to surveys carried out following the battle for the valley, farmers say they have suffered losses of about 67 percent in crop production.
Foreign and local aid, primarily aimed at reconstruction work, also flooded into Swat following the 2009 operation, which saw more than 1.3 million people forced to flee their homes as the army went village by village, carrying out ground and air operations to push the Taliban out of Swat. Since 2009, USAID, for example, has pledged more than $236.61m in aid to Swat and its adjoining areas, including $9m specifically aimed at reviving the flagging tourism industry. Other notable foreign donors include the UAE, Qatar Foundation and various European Union aid initiatives, mainly aimed at agriculture.
The Pakistani government, too, has carried out major reconstruction work in the area since the army retook the valley, rebuilding the basic infrastructure of roads, bridges and schools that were destroyed by years of conflict.
Al Jazeera recently visited the valley, and spoke with farmers, hotel owners and government representatives to get a sense of whether that aid is really making a difference.
|KHURSHEED ALI KHAN, 58, FRUIT WHOLESALER|
Khursheed Ali Khan, a native of the village of Qambar, has been involved in fruit farming for more than 40 years.
“We are just about getting by on fruit farming, but we are not thriving,” he says. “The main issue is that there is climate change here – it is getting warmer, so apples don’t grow as much. And with peaches there are so many diseases that your pocket will be emptied [of money] just spraying them with pesticides.
“For a farmer here, if you are able to get from one season to the next, then you are doing very well.”
Fruit orchards, Khan explained, take at least seven years to mature after being cut down – which is part of the reason why today, five years after the war, fruit farmers are still feeling the effects of Taliban rule.
“I have seen many people who had orchards, and now they’ve gone into the property business, selling and buying land. And this is why all the land has been destroyed – people have destroyed their fields and built houses over them.”
|ABDUR RAHIM, 45, PRESIDENT, SWAT TRADERS FEDERATION|
Abdur Rahim owns a small shop selling household goods in one of Mingora’s main markets, and is the president of the district’s traders federation. For him, the effect of Taliban rule, and the ensuing military operations, was much more far-reaching than simply security.
|Abdur Rahim, the president of the Swat Traders Federation, says Swat’s ‘wounds have not yet begun to heal’ from years of conflict [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]|
“The basic, fundamental thing in business is confidence. Any industry or business cannot run on its resources alone – even big factory owners need to take loans from the government. They buy goods on trust,” he says.
“Before the operation, on one phone call,” he adds, pointing to his phone, “we would load up trucks with hundreds of thousands of rupees [$1 is approximately 100 Pakistani rupees] worth of goods. Now, after Talibanisation, that trust has been ruined. Due to a handful of people, such a noise has been made around the world that everyone looks at us as terrorists.”
Rahim says that during the years of unrest, traders and businessmen found different routes and markets for their goods, bypassing Swat altogether. Today, he warns the effects of the widespread unemployment here could be more than just economic.
“No one has yet looked into why Talibanisation started. One of the reasons was of the system, but the other reason was unemployment. […] when people are unemployed, then they can easily be led astray. If you give some unemployed man Rs10,000 [$100], a Kalashnikov and a mobile phone, then how will they refuse?”
|MEHMOOD ASLAM WAZIR, DEPUTY COMMISSIONER, SWAT DISTRICT|
Mehmood Aslam Wazir is the second-highest ranking civilian administrator in Swat, and feels that the economic recovery in Swat is meeting the government’s expectations, despite continuing security concerns for anti-Taliban leaders.
“The recovery of Swat is on the upward side. You will be seeing that there are lots of hotels and restaurants here, and new ones are also being built. So they must be making a profit. Tourism is our biggest industry and it is being revived,” he told Al Jazeera.
Wazir pointed to the regularly organised tourism festivals, hosted by the military, as signs that tourists were beginning to return to the valley, and pledged that the civilian government would soon take over the organisation of those activities.
|HANIF KHAN, 28, OWNER, SWAT CONTINENTAL HOTEL|
Hanif Khan’s family has owned the Swat Continental Hotel, a mainstay of Mingora’s main market, for decades. During the days of Taliban rule, it was at the Swat Continental that journalists, who had been smuggled in, would stay, and during the military operation that followed, it was from here that most television journalists hosted their nightly live shows.
|Fruit wholesalers say business is beginning to recover, but that they are still a long way from the days of relative prosperity they enjoyed before 2006 [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]|
“The security situation is much better these days, and so business is better these days, too,” he says. “We are still about 40 percent below what it used to be in the mid-2000s, though.”
Khan and several other hotel owners Al Jazeera spoke to blame the state of the roads in Swat, many of which are still being reconstructed, for the restricted flow of tourists.
“The issue is the roads, especially those going to the scenic areas. That lessens the flow of tourists – if you fix those roads, we probably won’t be able to control the number of visitors.”
Khan himself spends little time in Swat, these days, due to continuing death threats from the Taliban, but says security threats in Swat are now limited to attacks against specific people, such as his family, who stood up to Fazlullah during his ascent to power.
“For tourists and outsiders, Swat is completely peaceful. But if I roam the streets here, I have to have three armed guards with me.”
Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim