The rickety tour bus passing us on the road to Kalam was evidence that what Pakistani officials had assured us of back in Karachi was at least partly true – after five years of bitter strife some form of normalcy has returned to Pakistan's Swat Valley and the land once referred to as the Switzerland of Asia has re-opened for business.
The bus, containing mostly locals with a smattering of Westerners, was taking its passengers to one of the Valley's premier attractions where ice-cold waters, fuelled by melting snows, rush down from the mountains providing some relief from the relentless late summer heat.
Certainly much has changed since 2008 when the Tehreek-i-Taliban (otherwise known as the Pakistani Taliban or simply TTP) penetrated the Swat and fought pitched battles with the country's military. The talk everywhere now is of the peace negotiations which the Government has offered to the TTP and to which, at the time of writing, the TTP has not replied.
Even this hesitation is seen as a good sign – no outright refusal must be positive. In addition, there have been exchanges of prisoners and, for the moment, an end to the hostilities that have raged over this part of the country since the War on Terror was proclaimed more than a decade ago.
The allied invasion of Afghanistan forced the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies to set up headquarters over the border in Pakistan's already turbulent tribal areas. For a while it seemed the very integrity of the nation was at stake as the insurgents pushed towards the heavily populated south, but a rejuvenated and United States-financed military, supported by the highly-successful US drone program (which the Government in Islamabad routinely condemns as a violation of its sovereignty at the same time as the army is supplying the Americans with information about targets) has turned back the advance.
The pacification of the Swat Valley has been hailed as one of the military's success stories, but as many residents were quick to point out, the TTP has not gone away.
"What we have is no more than an agreement not to fight each other. The Taliban can stay as long as they don't make trouble," one stallholder said.
'Not making trouble' appears to involve introducing the Taliban's brutal version of Sharia Law into the areas which they control, resulting in an uneasy relationship between the TTP and the provincial administration.
The stallholder claimed that while the Taliban do have some admirers in the Swat, the majority just wish they would just go away.
"Things are definitely better. I am able to do some business again, but you never know what they [the TTP] will do next."
What they did do just on a year ago was gun down 15-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai for publically advocating girls should go to school in her Swat Valley village of Mingora. Malala survived and has now become an international icon for the education of females in the Muslim world. The TTP still say she and her father are on their death list.
In recent days Al Qaeda leader and Taliban ally Ayman al-Zawahiri, who is based somewhere on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, issued an order to his followers to attack the US on its home soil "using any opportunity you can". In a recorded speech posted to a website often used by terrorist groups, al-Zawahiri said the aim was to bleed the US economically, forcing it to spend billions of dollars on security.
Discuss in our Forums
See what other readers are saying about this article!
Click here to read & post comments.
8 posts so far.
About the Author
Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.
He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.