MINGORA, Pakistan - Pakistan was trying to end bloodshed when it let the idyllic Swat Valley fall under Islamic law last week. Instead, it has emboldened the Taliban to extend a hand to militants, including Osama bin Laden.
The local spokesman for the Taliban, which control the valley, told The Associated Press he'd welcome militants bent on battling U.S. troops and their Arab allies if they want to settle there.
"Osama can come here. Sure, like a brother they can stay anywhere they want," Muslim Khan said in a two-hour interview Friday, his first with a foreign journalist since Islamic law was imposed. "Yes, we will help them and protect them."
Khan spoke in halting English he learned during four years painting houses in the U.S. before returning to Swat in 2002. He averted his eyes as he spoke to a female journalist, in line with his strict understanding of Islam.
Pakistan reacted with alarm to his comments, saying it would never let him shelter the likes of bin Laden.
"We would have to go for the military operation. We would have to apply force again," said Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira. "We simply condemn this. We are fighting this war against al-Qaida and the Taliban."
But it is far from clear that the government has the means to do much of anything in the Swat Valley. It agreed to Islamic law in the region—drawing international condemnation—after trying and failing to defeat the Taliban in fighting marked by brutal beheadings that killed more than 850 people over two years.
"We lost the war. We negotiated from a position of weakness," said Afrasiab Khattak, a leader of the Awami National Party, which governs the province that includes Swat. He said the region's police force is too underpaid, undertrained and underequipped to take on the militants.
At the behest of the National Assembly, President Asif Ali Zardari last week signed off on a regulation establishing Islamic law throughout the Malakand Division, a strategic territory bordering Afghanistan, and Pakistan's tribal belt where bin Laden has long been rumored to be hiding. The Swat Valley, where tourists once flocked to enjoy Alpine-like scenery, is part of the area.
Whether Swat someday proves an alluring haven for bin Laden could depend on how threatened he feels in his current location, and how successful the Taliban militants are in keeping state forces at bay there.
U.S. officials said they would work with Pakistan to make sure militants aren't safe anywhere.
"With regard to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, this is not a place where they should be welcome. We believe ... that violent extremists need to be confronted," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Monday.
In an interview with Pakistan's Geo TV, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was asked about U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke's concerns over the Swat deal.
"He doesn't need to worry about that," Gilani said. "This is our country. We know the ground realities better than he does. We will continue supporting this deal if peace comes there. I'm seeing peace is coming there."
On Friday, Taliban fighters in pickup trucks with black flags rumbled through the rutted streets of the valley's main city of Mingora, demanding over loudspeakers that shops shutter their windows and prepare for prayers.
In the city center, a district police station lay in ruins, destroyed by a suicide bomber. The only music blaring praised the Taliban and extolled the young to fight holy war.
Aftab Alam, president of the district court lawyers, took a journalist through an open courtyard and closed the door to his office before whispering in a soft, angry voice about the Taliban.
"They are more than beasts. Our government is impotent, stupid and corrupt. We are helpless (facing) this militancy," he said, calling the Taliban "barbaric" and "illiterate."
Alam said he feared for his life, "but I dare to speak because I am worried about my nation, my religion, my home."
The Swat deal comes as Pakistan's hodgepodge of militant groups appear to be growing increasingly integrated and coordinated.
The Taliban spokesman counted among his allies several groups on U.N. and U.S. terrorist lists: Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for last year's bloody siege in Mumbai, India; Jaish-e-Mohammed, which trains fighters in Pakistan's populous Punjab province; the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan; al-Qaida, and the Taliban of Afghanistan.
"If we need, we can call them and if they need, they can call us," Khan said.
He said his forces would go to help the Taliban in Afghanistan if the United States and NATO continue to fight there.
"You must tell (the Americans) if they want peace ... to withdraw their forces, keep them on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean," he said.
Khattak, the provincial politician, described the implementation of Islamic law as replacing traditional judges with qazis, special judges trained in Islamic law. Already, a handful of qazis have begun hearing minor cases. The deal's broker, fundamentalist cleric Sufi Mohammed, has said no regular courts will be allowed in the region.
But Khan said the Taliban envisions an even a broader system: a whole new set of laws following a strict interpretation of Islam, akin to the system Afghanistan's Taliban imposed during their 1996-2001 rule. There, the government banned music and television, restricted girls' education and women's movement and cut off limbs and stoned women to death in public ceremonies.
"We don't need just qazis. We have to change the laws," Khan said.
He said his group wants to expand Islamic law, also known as Shariah, into all of nuclear-armed Pakistan.
"You will see the National Assembly will follow after one year, two years, six months," he said. "I don't know, but they will have to pass Shariah for all of Pakistan."
Already, Taliban fighters have moved unhindered into nearby Buner district—also part of Malakand Division—declaring themselves to be the enforcers of Islamic law and threatening tribesmen.
"It used to be that you crossed the Malakand Pass to Swat and you thought, 'I am in heaven,'" said Alam, the lawyer. "Now you think, 'I am in Hell.'"
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