The source of the crisis is Fazlullah, a cleric who rose to power two years ago as a fiery preacher, broadcasting fundamentalist sermons over a pirate radio station.
By last May, he had attracted a loyal core of some 5,000 battle-hardened militants. Although locals warned about Fazlullah for months, President Pervez Musharraf's government did not apprehend him. Officials say that is because the provincial government in place at the time, a coalition of religious parties, refused to ask for help.
"Our religion is like daylight. Those promoting 'enlightened moderation' are the agents of darkness," Fazlullah told the Monitor in a rare interview in Swat last May, referring to Mr. Musharraf's policy of instituting moderate political and social values. (See last May's three-part series, "Testing ground: the battle for Pakistan's frontier provinces.") At the time, Fazlullah claimed to be against violence, but his actions proved otherwise soon after this interview.
By September, his forces had seized control of almost 60 towns throughout the valley in an attempt to create an Islamic state. When the Army finally intervened in November, Fazlullah's insurgency was supposed to come to a swift end. But even after 20,000 troops swept through Swat, residents warned that the threat was far from over – that the government had waited too long to act and Fazlullah had become too powerful.
Chief among them was Asfandiar Amir Zeb, a prince whose family ruled Swat, a royal kingdom before it was incorporated into Pakistan in 1969, for 100 years.
"[T]he government was very inefficient in dealing with this situation – they should have dealt with the situation in time where no blood would have been spilled," Mr. Amir Zeb, a prominent moderate politician, said in December, suggesting that Fazlullah could strike again despite the army's presence.
Two weeks later, as he was campaigning for a seat in the National Assembly, Amir Zeb was killed when a roadside bomb struck his car. To date, no one has claimed responsibility for the assassination, but it is widely believed that Fazlullah is to blame.