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Pakistan's Military Wins Swat Valley Radio War

They are sworn enemies. They have their eyes fixed on the sweep of land along Pakistan's northwestern frontier. And they are both masters of the art of radio.

Those are the only similarities between the two men.

One is the leader of the Taliban in that area, Mullah Fazlullah. He is an Islamic cleric with a long beard and an even longer list of atrocities against his name, committed by his men as they sought to assert their control over Pakistan's Swat Valley.

His fiery religious radio broadcasts to Swat's beleaguered population, relayed via transmitters strapped to the backs of donkeys, earned him the moniker "Radio Mullah."

The other man is Aqeel Malik. He works for the publicity arm of Pakistan's military, known as Inter Services Public Relations. He has a stack of media qualifications, a winning smile and an irrepressible enthusiasm for his job — project director of FM 96 Radio Swat.

Malik launched Radio Swat in February after convincing the authorities that it was vital to set up a radio competitor to the mullah, whose broadcasts had become popular and played a significant role in helping the Taliban establish a foothold there.

Fazlullah is now believed to have retreated to the mountains after being driven out by a Pakistani military offensive launched four months ago in an attempt to take back Swat, once Pakistan's most prized tourist destination. But for a while, the mullah dominated the landscape — and the airwaves.

The people of northwest Pakistan are mostly religiously conservative Pashtuns. The women tend to stay at home. Malik believes this provided Mullah Fazlullah with a captive audience, which he was quick to exploit.

"Those women who are residing alone without their male counterparts in the house, they would listen to the radio," Malik said. "Initially he would preach peace. He was in fact a very firebrand speaker. He would talk to them of topics of their liking."

At the time, the Pakistani military was unpopular in the area, not least because of its heavy-handed attempts to crush militancy. Residents accused it of killing civilians by indiscriminately shelling villages, and of harassing the population with check posts and curfews.

After a while, Malik says, the mullah's tone changed: "He asked them [the women] to rise in the name of Islam, rise in the name of religion. Rise as the most important part of society. Force your men to fight."

Malik launched FM 96 Radio Swat from headquarters in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. He says all of the station's 40 or so staff are civilians, mostly from the Swat area.

Malik maintains that the service was launched with government funds but has since become independent and self-financing — a claim that tends to be treated with skepticism by people in Swat.

The station focuses on religion, Pashtun culture and community affairs. But Radio Swat also plays music, including rock and pop, in pointed contrast to the Taliban, which bombed the valley's music and CD shops.

Malik says the decision to broadcast music brought about a surprising change in the tactics of his chief rival, Radio Mullah. "After the launch of my radio — you'll be astonished — after a month or so, Mullah Radio also started playing music. So this was my first success."

Malik specifically targeted Fazlullah's daily sermons. "Mullah Fazlullah would normally deliver his speech at 8 p.m.," Malik said. "My most popular music program translated into English is called "Soothing of the Heart." It is a very romantic program. So I would broadcast that program from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m."

Malik says the Taliban threatened his staff and tried to attack Radio's Swat's transmitters and jam its broadcasts.

With difficulty, he persuaded his colleagues to allow the militants to take part in phone-ins, so that he could take them on head to head, and engage them in a debate about their extremist ideology.

His staff members have a recording of what they say is the Radio Mullah speaking on their airwaves a few months ago, challenging official claims that the Taliban was fleeing Swat.

Mullah Fazlullah has not been heard on the air in Swat for weeks, though some of the valley's residents fear he may eventually return. Sporadic militant attacks continue in the area. At least 15 Pakistani police recruits were killed in a suicide bombing in Swat's main city, Mingora, on Sunday.

Malik now has a new project in the works, this time focusing on winning hearts and minds in the mountains of Pakistan's tribal belt: FM 96 Radio Waziristan, "The Voice of Peace," is due to go on the air early next month.

Waziristan is a stronghold of the Taliban and al-Qaida. Malik does not expect many women to phone in to his shows.

"Waziristan is a very hard nut to crack, because this is the most difficult area in Pakistan," he said.

Yet Malik is confident he will find plenty of listeners. "Women, youth, elders, even Taliban — they all [will] be at the listening end," Malik said. "This I can assure you."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Morning Edition
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.