ISLAMABAD – Gunmen attacked a Pakistani paramilitary force sent to a Taliban-infiltrated district just 100 kilometres from the capital Thursday, killing a police officer and feeding growing doubts about the government’s peace deal with extremists in the area.
A meeting between Taliban representatives and tribal elders ended with the militants making some concessions but no pledge to withdraw from Buner, where they have established bases since crossing over from their stronghold in the neighbouring Swat Valley.
Swat’s Taliban appear to be emboldened after their bloody, two-year campaign in the valley led the government to agree to a peace accord that imposes Islamic law in a wide swath of the northwest bordering Afghanistan.
There were reports Thursday that fighters from the Swat Taliban also have entered another neighbouring district, Shangla, said a security official who agreed to discuss the situation only if not identified because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
Militants have made no secret of their desire to see Islamic law imposed across the country, and as they edge closer to Islamabad, unease about the peace deal is growing in Pakistan and in the West. The United States is especially concerned because it considers stability in Pakistan – and rooting out its militant sanctuaries – critical to success in the Afghan war.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told American legislators in an unusually blunt statement Wednesday that Pakistan’s leaders were “basically abdicating to the Taliban.” On Thursday, however, she said the Pakistani government appeared increasingly aware of the threat.
U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke talked to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari by telephone Thursday, but the president’s office would not say if Swat or Buner were discussed. The chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, was visiting Pakistan.
As reports filtered out about Taliban fighters moving into Buner – that they were patrolling roads, broadcasting radio sermons and ordering barbers to stop shaving beards – the government sent six platoons from the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary to the district this week.
Government official Syed Mohammed Javed confirmed the deployment but would not comment on the troops’ purpose. Javed did not specify the number sent; a platoon typically has 30 to 50 members.
The troops were dispatched Wednesday, Javed said. Unidentified gunmen opened fire on one of the convoys Thursday, killing an escorting police officer and wounding another in the Totalai area, said Hukam Khan, a police official.
How much force the government was willing to display remained unclear, especially after the army’s spokesman, Maj.-Gen. Athar Abbas, insisted the situation in Buner was not as dire as some felt. He said militants controlled less than 25 per cent of the district, mostly its north.
“We are fully aware of the situation,” Abbas said. “The other side has been informed to move these people out of this area.”
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani insisted no group would be allowed to challenge the authority of the government, but a few legislators, including some who initially backed the peace deal with the Swat Taliban, said the administration had to do more to contain extremists.
“If the other party is not able to give us peace and expanding themselves to Buner and Shangla, then it is the government’s duty to use its full strength to stop their expansion,” said Haji Mohammad Adeel, a top member of the party that leads the provincial government in the northwest and entered into the accord in the first place.
The provincial government agreed to the peace deal in February, but the president signed off on it only last week, under strong pressure from the national legislature.
The accord covers Swat, Buner, Shangla and other districts in the Malakand Division, an area of about 25,900 square kilometres near the Afghan border and the tribal areas where al-Qaida and the Taliban have strongholds.
Supporters have said the deal takes away the militants’ main rallying call for Islamic law and will let the government gradually reassert control, a theory yet to be seriously tested.
Analysts said Buner is a wake-up call for a Pakistani government that has often seemed weak-willed in dealing with insurgents. But, they said, Islamabad is not in danger now.
“The military is going to be the major impediment” to taking the capital, said Hasan Askari-Rizvi, a leading political analyst. Still, he said, sympathizers in the capital could use the Buner advance as a rallying cry to cause unrest.
More than a half million people live in Buner.
On Thursday, the bazaar in Buner’s main town of Daggar and the road into the district were almost deserted, a visiting AP Television News reporter found. Police and government officials in Buner appeared to have either fled or were keeping a low profile, and there was no sign of Frontier Constabulary troops in the town.
The meeting of tribal elders and the Taliban in Daggar ended without notice the militants would leave.
A Taliban leader who goes by the name “Commander Khalil” said the militants agreed to stop patrolling in Buner, though they would keep armed guards in their vehicles.
“We are here peacefully preaching for Sharia (Islamic law). We don’t want to fight,” Khalil told an Associated Press reporter by phone.