By Mark Magnier and Zulfiqar Ali
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times
PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- After a fitful day of meetings and government threats, a group of Taliban fighters grabbed their guns Friday, jumped into their trucks and headed back toward the Swat Valley, relieving fears that they might continue on toward Islamabad, the capital of this nuclear-armed state.
But local residents of the Buner district, the object of the Taliban expansionary push, remained badly shaken, well aware of the militants' record in neighboring Swat of burning schools, beheading policemen and beating unmarried couples walking in public or holding hands.
"I can't think of going back to Buner," given the security situation, said Afsar Khan, 40, a municipal council member, who has fled to Peshawar with his family.
Moreover, many residents worried that the militants' departure was largely a charade. They said a limited number of militants made a big show of leaving but as many of their colleagues remained quietly behind. Some officials reckoned that at least 300 fully armed Taliban arrived from Swat but only a few dozen appeared to return.
Some experts also expressed doubt that the Taliban's action was anything but a tactical retreat that would give their forces an opportunity to regroup and expand their grip at a more opportune time.
Khan was injured when the Islamist militants detonated a bomb at a Jirga, or community meeting, he was attending earlier this month on how to counter the Taliban influx. Five others died, he said. Taliban militants followed up by attacking and occupying his family compound, known as Sultan House.
A reporter working in Buner who asked not to be identified said residents have been extremely afraid in recent days, especially women threatened with violence if they left their homes. Schools remained open and girls were attending, he said, but almost all female students wore parda, or veils. And FM radio stations were under Taliban control and were broadcasting sermons and other religious programming.The Taliban's rapid expansion into Buner in recent weeks has shocked many in Pakistan and around the world because the district is just 60 miles from Islamabad. The unabashed power grab has come as President Asif Ali Zardari formally recognized their authority to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, in Swat Valley, raising fears they were unstoppable.
In the past, the Taliban's influence in Pakistan has been largely confined to frontier and tribal areas near the Afghan border of less immediate concern to many urban, middle class, Pakistanis.
Taliban officials said Friday that they'd ordered their Swat colleagues to head back home. "But local Taliban in Buner will remain," Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told reporters in Buner.
"I am a guarantor of peace in (the) region," regional Taliban leader Maulana Sufi Muhammad added, after visiting a seminary and meeting with fellow Taliban leaders. "The outsiders from other districts should leave the area as it is a threat to peace."
Pakistani television showed several Taliban militants leaving Buner on pick-ups, openly brandishing automatic weapons. Some waved to people who gathered to see them off.
A key factor in the Taliban's actions appeared to be threats by the central and provincial governments to launch military operations against them if they remained in place. Officials also threatened to tear up the Sharia deal in Swat if the Taliban didn't live up to its end of the bargain.
Supporters of that arrangement, which gives the militants de facto control over a large area of territory, argued it would buy peace, but critics say it amounts to temporary appeasement that only makes the hardliners stronger.
Taliban Commander Mufti Aftab said Friday their only purpose for "visiting" Buner was to preach peacefully. "We do not want to see Buner destroyed by security forces," he added.
Zardari, under growing domestic and international pressure to act tough, said in a statement that the government is committed to fighting militancy and won't succumb to threats.
The Pakistani army, ill-equipped and generally uncomfortable fighting insurgents, also added its voice to the choir.
"The army is determined to root out the menace of terrorism from society," said Pakistani military chief General Ashfaq Kayani.
The army arguably helped create the problem in Swat, however, by engaging Taliban militants half-heartedly in 2007 and then retreating, which appeared to have emboldened them. Members of Pakistan's security services reportedly maintain close relations with militant groups, some of which they helped spawn.
"We have the sixth largest army in the world," opposition lawmaker and columnist Ayaz Amir said Friday. "It's time the military at least ensures our internal security."
U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said at a congressional hearing Friday that extremists who have crossed the border from Afghanistan "pose an ever-more serious threat to Pakistan's very existence."
To help combat the menace, the U.S. military is expanding its partnership with the Pakistani military and trying to promote greater coordination between Afghan and Pakistani military forces at the border, Petraeus said.
Irfan Husain, a journalist and lecturer at the National Defense University, Pakistan's main scholarly institution for the military, said the Taliban doesn't have the manpower to storm and hold Islamabad in a conventional manner.
But members are already in the capital and will continue to make their presence felt by bombing schools and hotels, blowing up police stations and issuing edicts against stores selling videos, spreading terror to further their agenda, he said.Opposition lawmaker Amir said the Taliban movement has expanded inexorably in recent years, but may have made a tactical error this time.
"The ink had hardly dried on the Swat deal and they moved into Buner," he said. "That set off alarm bells, shook the government out of its complacency and made people sit up wondering which would be the next domino to fall. These guys over-reached this time, very poor tactics."
^Times staff writer Magnier reported from New Delhi, and special correspondent Ali from Peshawar. Special correspondents Mubashir Zaidi and Fauzia Elahi in Islamabad contributed to this report.