- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 25, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | The Taliban on Friday started withdrawing from Buner, a district close to the troubled Swat Valley and about 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad, as Pakistan’s top political and military leadership warned of a possible military operation in the region.

The top administrator in the region said the Taliban began withdrawing after successful talks between the district administration and Maulana Sufi Muhammad, the cleric who negotiated a deal with the government for enforcement of an Islamic legal system in the Malakand region.

Swat and Buner both are within the vast Malakand region.

Militants have been in control of Swat for the past few years. However, earlier this month they moved into the neighboring Buner district, getting ever closer to Islamabad and triggering concerns in Washington.

“Taliban’s pullout has been started from Buner and the district is being cleared of unwanted elements,” Syed Muhammad Javed, the commissioner of Malakand, told the state media. Residents reported seeing several armed Taliban militants leave on pickup trucks.

Mr. Javed said the Taliban has also agreed to end armed patrolling across Malakand.

A local journalist told The Washington Times by phone that the whole of Buner was not yet cleared of militants.

“Taliban have started withdrawal from Buner. Pullout is still in process. They have vacated almost all the major towns. So far almost 30 percent militants have pulled out and the process is going on,” said the journalist, who did not want to be identified for security reasons.

Local sources said militants who are residents of Buner will stay, but have agreed to stop armed patrolling.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan confirmed that militants had started pulling out from Buner and heading back toward Swat.

Mr. Khan said the Taliban fighters were leaving Buner of their own accord and rejected the impression they were being pressured into withdrawal.

As the Taliban began to take control of Buner last week, the government responded by sending in paramilitary forces to protect government offices. On Thursday, Taliban fighters attacked the paramilitary troops, killing one police officer escorting them.

The Taliban advance caused alarm in Washington, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, said Islamabad was “abdicating” to the Taliban and extremists.

The expansion of the Taliban has put the Pakistani government in an embarrassing situation, raising questions on the state’s ability to establish its authority. Political and military leaders on Friday tried to reassure Pakistanis and the world of the government’s ability to keep the country secure.

Government and military officials began seriously considering another military operation against militants, who are constantly expanding their area of control, Their latest advance came despite a peace deal and the government’s decision in February to allow the use of Islamic Shariah law in the vast Malakand region of northwest Pakistan as a concession to persuade the Taliban to lay down its arms.

President Asif Ali Zardari held an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and Asfandyar Wali Khan, whose Awami National Party is the leading party in the coalition government in North West Frontier Province, where Swat and Buner are located.

“The meeting reiterated that the government will neither compromise on enforcing writ of the state nor allow the militants and nonstate actors to establish their own parallel authority in any part of the country through the use of force,” presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said.

As fears grew of a new military crackdown on the Taliban, several families in Buner and adjoining areas started fleeing their homes for safer places, Pakistani media reports said.

Gen. Kayani told a meeting of top commanders that a pause in military operations should not be considered a concession to militants and that the army is ready to eliminate those who challenge the government.

“Operational pause, meant to give the reconciliatory forces a chance, must not be taken for a concession to the militants. Army has resolve to fight to eliminate the militants, who endanger the lives of peaceful citizens of the country and challenge the writ of the state,” Gen. Kayani said, according to a military statement.

The army chief said he is aware of the doubts being voiced about the intent as well as the capability of the army to defeat the militancy in the country.

“Pakistan army never has and never will hesitate to sacrifice whatever it may take to ensure safety and well being of people of Pakistan and country’s territorial integrity,” he said.

“With the support of the people, [the] army is determined to root out the menace of terrorism from the society. It will not allow the militants to dictate terms to the government or impose their way of life on the civil society of Pakistan,” Gen. Kayani said.

He also condemned “pronouncements by outside powers raising doubts on the future of the country.”

“A country of 170 million resilient people under a democratic dispensation, strongly supported by the army, is capable of handling any crisis that it may confront. Victory against the terror and militancy will be achieved at all cost,” Gen. Kayani said.

Addressing the National Assembly, Mr. Gilani said the government would review the agreement in Swat if it is not followed.

“We can review the policy and revisit the agreement. We are not bound and are not puppets. We will not accept the decisions which are not in the national interest,” the prime minister said.