Defiant Taliban Forces Advance To Within 60 Miles of Islamabad

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 24, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, April 23 -- Taliban forces consolidated control of two northwestern Pakistan districts and sent patrols into a third Thursday, stepping up their defiance of a government peace deal and raising fears of further advances by violent Islamists who are now within 60 miles of this capital city.

Officials reacted with only mild concern, saying that the Taliban should comply with their pledge to lay down arms and that the peace deal should be given a chance. Pakistan's national security adviser, Rehman Malik, said security had actually "improved" in the past two weeks but that force would be "the only option" if the Islamists did not halt their violence.

The new Taliban push comes amid increasing criticism of the Pakistani government for its confused, ineffective attempts to contain Islamist violence. Faced with a surge in suicide bombings and attacks across the country, the government of President Asif Ali Zardari has alternately tried to fight and appease the insurgents.

More than a year after democratic elections swept secular, pro-democracy parties into power nationally and in the northwest, Zardari and his allies have endorsed a peace deal that allows the Taliban to impose strict Islamic law, or sharia, on the Swat Valley in exchange for laying down their weapons.

"The Pakistani government is fiddling as the Northwest Frontier Province burns," Pakistani representatives of the human rights group Amnesty International said Thursday in a statement. The organization said that hundreds of thousands of Pakistani civilians are "now at the mercy of abusive and repressive Taliban groups" and that the government has given no indication of how it intends to protect them.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that Zardari's government was "abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists." U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is meeting with Pakistani leaders this week, and special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke called Zardari on Thursday evening.

The Taliban sent mixed signals as their fighters advanced from Swat into the neighboring Buner and Shangla districts. They ambushed a convoy of frontier police sent to protect government buildings in Buner, but they also extended a deadline for all nonreligious judges to leave Swat and said they had entered the other areas "only to preach."

But Pakistani news media reported that the Taliban have forcibly overrun Buner in the past several days, while many state judges and officials have abandoned their posts. The black-turbaned fighters have occupied a popular shrine and turned it into a radio station for extremist broadcasts. Public markets are reported to be deserted except for Taliban troops, shown on TV news channels wearing masks and wielding assault rifles.

Provincial leaders continued to express support for the peace agreement, which they sponsored in a desperate effort to bring peace to the Swat Valley after months of brutal intimidation. Several suggested that if the agreement fails, it will provide the domestic political cover needed for army forces to take on the insurgents with no holds barred. Rumors have circulated this week of a planned army assault in the Swat area.

"I still believe it was the right decision," said Afrasiab Khattak, a leader of the Awami National Party, or ANP, a secular bloc that governs in the northwest and that sponsored the agreement. "If the militants do not lay down their arms now, there will be no more excuses. The common soldier will feel everything possible has been done to avoid war. The government will have the moral high ground, and the army can go in with a much bigger operation than before. This time it will be different."

But some analysts here say the Islamists, who control much of the tribal belt along the Afghan border, have succeeded in establishing Swat, which lies in Pakistani's interior, as a launching pad for their wider ambitions. They say the army, trained to fight a conventional war against India, still has no stomach to fight its Muslim countrymen, many of whom were once sponsored by Pakistan and the United States to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

There is widespread public disappointment in Pakistan's civilian leaders for so easily ceding ground to extremists who butchered and bullied their way to power in Swat. Parliament approved the deal allowing sharia after almost no debate, and Zardari signed it.

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