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Displaced Pakistanis Begin Returning to Battle-Scarred Swat Valley

As hundreds of Pakistanis return to the battle-scarred Swat Valley, experts are urging the international community to take the opportunity help them as a way to undercut Taliban influence in the region.

More than two million Pakistanis had to flee their homes in the northwestern Swat valley to escape the fighting between Pakistani troops and the Taliban. Some are now returning home, leaving the makeshift refugee camps where they had been living.

"We thought the government had arranged something good in the camps for us, but we had nothing here," said Rehman Ali.

"Here they don't give us anything," added Umer Khan. "When we go back home we will get something at least. When we earn ourselves and eat, we will feel better."

But some refuse to go back, citing security concerns while also demanding relief money promised by the government.

Pakistan has appealed to the international community for more aid, saying it will need more than $2 billion to resettle the homeless.

Meanwhile, al-Qaida appears to sense an opportunity. On Tuesday, the terror group's second in command issued a call for jihad, or holy war in Pakistan.

Ayman al-Zawahiri said the Pakistani people are struggling against a "clique of corrupt politicians and a junta of military officers" involved in an American crusade against Islam.

Experts in Washington say the international community must respond quickly. They say the crisis provides an ideal opportunity for the US and international community to cut into the growing influence of the Taliban in the region by helping the homeless people and building goodwill.

Mukhtar Khan is an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation.

"We should reconstruct their houses, their businesses, their shops, schools, especially schools of girls and women," he said.

Experts say the Taliban may seek to lure the returning children to Islamic seminaries known as Madrassas where they teach them their own strict interpretation of Islam.

Rebecca Winthrop of the Brookings Institution says this is also the time to start educating girls because in the northwestern tribal region only three percent of the women can read and write.

"If we are able to increase how we can educate girls and women, there is an opportunity in this crisis to lay the foundations for long term socio-economic development in the region," she said.

Some experts recommend that the international community should quickly open make-shift vocational centers that can prepare the returning population to find jobs linked to the upcoming reconstruction of the region.

Azhar Hussain is the Vice-president at the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy.

"Vocational centers that come from Holland that can be put in place in four days," Hussain said. "They can teach auto-mechanic workshop, computer literacy…there are 60 different vocational training that can be ramped up very quickly."

And he says this is also the time for the West to engage the religious clergy to provide productive services.

"They can provide water, food, sanitation and maybe some counseling," he added.

But these experts agree the real problem that must be dealt with is the possibility that the Taliban will return to the region whenever they get a chance - bringing the situation back to square one.