Pakistan's tourist idyll falls prey to Taliban militants

Men ordered to grow beards and women barred from markets as Islamic law is brutally imposed

Militants who have seized control of swaths of Pakistan's Swat Valley have set today as a deadline for men to grow beards or face retribution.

In the latest edict issued by Taliban forces seeking to impose Islamic law on an area once celebrated as a tourist destination, men have been told to begin growing beards and to wear caps. Barbers in the Matta area, a militant stronghold, have been ordered to stop offering shaves, and have posted signs in their shops asking customers not to request them.

The Swat Valley, just five hours from Islamabad, has gradually fallen under the control of militants headed by the cleric Maulana Fazlullah. Despite claims by the Pakistani army that they are successfully confronting the extremists, local residents say up to 80 per cent of the valley is outside government control.

In recent weeks the militants' tactics have become increasingly extreme. Corpses of people who have fallen foul of the Taliban have been strung up in trees and markets have been ruled off-limits to women. Two weeks ago the movement demanded the closure of hundreds of schools, leaving the future education of around 125,000 young girls in doubt.

"Swat was once the most verdant, peaceful valley. You could even travel safely at night. Now you cannot even travel during the day," said Zubair Torwali, an activist and journalist. "It is beyond sad. What is happening is a tragedy."

Another indication of the looming terror concerned the killing last week of Amjad Islam. The luxuriantly bearded teacher seemed an unlikely target for the Taliban, having previously fought for the mujahedin in Afghanistan. But on Thursday he was approached by militants who did not like the fact that his shalwar, baggy cotton trousers worn by Pakistanis, concealed his ankles. Followers of the austere strain of Islam practiced by the Taliban – and the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia – insist trousers should be raised over men's ankles, in the belief that this was the manner of the Prophet Mohamed.

Mr Islam declined to comply and, according to local reports, a scuffle ensued. The militants shot the teacher before also killing his father, Ghani Akbar. They later took Mr Islam's body and hung it in a public square, telling people not to remove it, so that it might serve as a warning.

Local politicians, who have fled the valley, say the military is not doing enough to impose law and order. They repeat residents' claims that elements of the military and the militants appear to be acting together. Bushra Gohar, vice-president of the Awami National Party, said: "Even if they are not, there needs to be a complete review of the military's strategy."

The suspicion of collusion, said a local government official in the largest town, Mingora, is based on the proximity of army and Taliban checkposts, each "a mile away from the other".

What is certain is that the army faces an uphill task if it is to restore order in Swat. Senior officers say that, having achieved significant gains a year ago, the new provincial government sought to end fighting by signing peace deals with Mr Fazlullah.

The deals broke down after the Taliban continued to set fire to girls' schools. They have captured territory, driven the police off the streets and established a network of makeshift sharia courts that dispense "speedy justice", namely the lashing and stoning of those found guilty. "[The effort to broker ceasefires] cost us a lot of time," said Major General Athar Abbas, an army spokesman.

Mr Fazlullah last week denied that he had issued the edict on beards, raising the prospect that groups of extremists are operating outside his control. Either way, the loss of the Swat Valley raises more questions about the effectiveness of the fragile government of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani.

"Swat was a fully integrated part of the Pakistan state in a way that was not really true of the tribal areas," said Farzana Shaikh, a scholar at Chatham House in London and author of a forthcoming book, Making Sense of Pakistan. "Everyone from the ruling elite went to Swat every summer. It is significant that groups [such as the Taliban] now represent a threat to the sort of moderate, tolerant Islam that Pakistan and its dominant elite had been associated with."