By Haq Nawaz Khan and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 25, 2009
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, April 24 -- Taliban extremist forces withdrew Friday from the northwestern district of Buner after a week of rising fears that the armed Islamists could be setting their sights on the modern capital, Islamabad, just 60 miles south.
Regional officials in this northwestern city announced shortly after noon that the militant forces would leave Buner by night, and television news channels showed dozens of masked Taliban fighters climbing on trucks and driving out of the district's main town, waving goodbye with their assault rifles.
The withdrawal appeared to be an attempt to salvage a crumbling, controversial peace deal in which the government of President Asif Ali Zardari agreed to allow strict Islamic rule in the Swat Valley and six surrounding districts, and the Taliban agreed to halt its armed intimidation of the populace.
It was not clear Friday whether the militants were making a tactical retreat in the face of rising domestic criticism and hints of punitive army action, or whether they had decided to halt their drive to forcibly spread Islamic rule from the tribal region near the Afghan border into the settled Pakistani heartland.
But perhaps the more significant change, analysts said, was the dramatic shift in official attitudes toward the fighters, whose week-long advance from Swat into new areas of the North-West Frontier Province was played down by Pakistan's civilian and military leadership as recently as Thursday.
It wasn't until the armed extremists occupied the adjacent Buner district and moved into a third area Thursday that the government, which recently endorsed the January peace agreement with the Taliban, suddenly realized that the radicals represented a serious potential threat and were brazenly violating the deal.
A simultaneous jolt came from the Obama administration, which warned bluntly that Pakistani authorities were abdicating power to the extremists and needed to respond forcefully. On Thursday, a White House spokesman called the Taliban's advance "very disturbing," and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Pakistan needed to recognize the militant threat and "take appropriate actions to deal with it."
Also, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with senior Pakistani officials in Islamabad this week, including the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani. A U.S. military official familiar with their discussions said Mullen was "increasingly frustrated by the continual progress by the Taliban" and the response by Pakistan's government. Mullen has been "pushing for more U.S. aid and assistance to the military, but the Pakistanis have been reluctant to accept," the official said.
A flurry of high-level security and strategy meetings in Islamabad and Peshawar were followed by a series of stern statements Friday from an array of senior Pakistani officials.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, in a speech to the National Assembly, vowed that "Pakistan is capable of defending itself against the Taliban." He said the fighters would not be allowed to set up a parallel state or "sabotage the peace of the country."
Kiyani said at a meeting of senior army officials Friday morning that the army possessed both the will and the capability to defeat armed extremists, according to a statement released by the army. Kiyani said the military "will not allow the militants to dictate terms to the government or impose their way of life on civil society."
It was widely reported Friday that the army was preparing plans for a major military operation in the region if the Taliban did not pull back. The army has come under criticism for intermittent and ineffective raids on extremist-held areas, followed by civilian efforts to appease the violent groups.
In the North-West Frontier Province, leaders from the ruling secular party that had sponsored the peace agreement -- and had strongly defended it even as the fighters moved into new areas and made new demands -- decided enough was enough. They met Friday morning with Sufi Mohammad, the radical cleric who brokered the deal, and drove with him to Buner to persuade the fighters to leave.
There were reports that some Taliban hard-liners were refusing to vacate the district, but the government sent in teams of special police to safeguard the area. Regional officials said they assured Taliban leaders that Islamic law, or sharia, would be brought quickly to Swat and the adjoining districts, but they also agreed that force should be used if the radicals continued to violate the accord.
The newly muscular position taken by officials echoed a growing chorus of concern and criticism by Pakistani politicians, columnists and experts, who accused the government of inaction and indifference toward the Taliban advance, despite the group's record of brutal intimidation and murder.
"These militants have proved over and over that they are not interested in peace. They have only used the agreement to further their ambitions," said Brig. Mehmood Shah, a retired military official and analyst in Peshawar. "It is good to see a certain urgency now on the government side. Now they need to go in with a massive demonstration of force and follow it up with projects the people need."
Members of Parliament, who recently endorsed the peace deal virtually without debate, also rose to demand action. One legislator from the Pakistan Muslim League, the major rival to Zardari's ruling Pakistan People's Party, called for the country's intelligence chief to brief them on the militant threat.
But even as prominent Pakistanis demanded or promised action, their comments contained an undercurrent of defensive nationalism over the U.S. pressure to act. Kiyani condemned "pronouncements by outside powers," and Gillani insisted that the country's defense and nuclear arsenal are "in safe hands." One Muslim League politician, Chaudhry Nisar, put it even more bluntly, saying, "We are not a banana republic."
And even as people condemned the Taliban's abuses, many pointedly mentioned the cross-border bombing raids by unmanned U.S. aircraft, which have caused some civilian casualties and become a lightning rod for public anger over what many Pakistanis view as unwarranted American interference in their affairs.
"Nobody wants the Taliban in power, but the drone attacks create some sympathy for them," said Mohammed Sulieman, 32, a bearded seminary teacher from the city of Rawalpindi. "How can we support any nation that is killing innocent people and violating our land?"
Constable reported from Islamabad. Staff writer Greg Jaffe in Baghdad contributed to this report.