Taliban Fighters Pull Back in NW Pakistan

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.

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