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 and prompted an invitation — however improbable — for Osama bin Laden.
The local spokesman for the Taliban, which control the valley, said 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.