Taliban Now Controlling Two Pakistan Districts

By Pamela Constable
(c) 2009, The Washington Post

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — 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 have now come within 60 miles of this capital city.

Officials reacted with only mild concern, saying the Taliban should comply with their pledge to lay down arms but that the peace deal should be given a chance. The 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 militants do 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 militants.

Just over a year after democratic elections that 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 Sharia law 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 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." However, in congressional testimony Thursday, she said that officials in Pakistan were "beginning to recognize the severity" of the problem. U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is meeting with Pakistani leaders this week, and special envoy Richard 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 non-religious judges to leave Swat and said they had entered the other areas "only to preach."

But Pakistani 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 militants 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, a secular party 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 believe the Islamists, who already control much of the tribal belt along the Afghan border, have now 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 rule after almost no debate, and Zardari signed it.

"We have a severe leadership crisis," said Athar Minallah, a lawyer who helped lead a successful, two-year protest movement to restore deposed senior judges. "The parliament is deaf and dumb, and Zardari is living in bunkerized luxury. If the political elite think everything is so great in Swat, why don't they send their families to live there instead of abroad?"

Partisan rivalries have also tainted the decision about how to respond to the Islamist threat. When Sherry Rehman, a legislator from Zardari's party, spoke in parliament against the Swat accord, saying she feared it would leave women and children at the mercy of harsh fanatics, she was immediately denounced as a party-splitter.

"I am under fire from everyone now, but I just had to speak up," Rehman said shortly after parliament approved the Swat deal. "Terrorism and militancy are spreading, people are afraid, and the state is in retreat. The problem is not about Sharia, it's about who will enforce it. If you allow a rabble with guns to dictate things, it will create a culture of impunity and fear."

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Zardari's leading rival, this week joined the chorus of concern about the Taliban advance, but he was widely assumed to be polishing his moderate credentials after years of close relations with religious parties and his own attempt, as Pakistan's leader in the 1990s, to impose Sharia law nationwide.

A third factor in the confused national reaction to the Swat agreement, and to the wider threat of Islamist violence, is the deep resentment many Pakistanis feel about the U.S. military role here. There is widespread belief that the problem of radical Islam in Pakistan stems from the unfinished war between the U.S. and the Taliban in next-door Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of U.S. troops are stationed.

Even a rash of terrorist strikes in major interior cities, including a suicide bombing at a hotel in Islamabad and a commando attack on a police academy near Lahore, have not fully dispelled the popular notion that militancy can be confined to the northwest. Alarms about home-grown terrorism are being drowned out by nationalist anger over bombing raids by unpiloted U.S. drones on militant targets near the Afghan border.

Meanwhile, with Taliban fighters occupying more and more areas in the northwest and vowing to bring Islamic justice to the region, political and professional leaders have fled. Few officials from the ANP and Zardari's Pakistan People's Party dare visit the constituencies that voted for them in last February's elections. Mohammed Khan, a lawyer from Swat who fled the region last month with his family, recounted how pressure from the militants prevented secular candidates from holding rallies or campaigning before the elections. But their two parties swept the polls, while religious ones fared poorly.

"One (Islamist) party used the symbol of a book, telling people it was the Koran, but Swatis voted for the lantern of the ANP," Khan said, referring to the symbols used on ballots to indicate a candidate's party. "Now the ANP has had to swallow the bitter pill of Sharia rule, but how can anyone say the people wanted that? They have been pushed into a corner, and now no one is there to defend them."

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