- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistani Taliban officials said Saturday they have completely pulled out of a district 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad, but local officials said some armed militants were still holding their positions, forcing the military to warn that they could be expelled by force.

In the Swat Valley, the picturesque base of the Islamists, Taliban fighters stopped an army convoy from entering the area, further weakening a controversial peace deal with the government that has been criticized by the U.S.

Also in North West Frontier Province (NWFP), 12 children playing near their school in Low Dir district were killed when they mistook a bomb for a ball, police said.

The Taliban began withdrawing from Buner on Friday after government and military officials in Islamabad warned of strong action to remove them. There were also reports that the army was preparing to launch another crackdown.

Under a cease-fire deal between the Taliban and the provincial government, President Asif Ali Zardari agreed in February to allow the imposition of Islamic Shariah law in the Malakand region of the North West Frontier Province, which includes Swat and Buner.

The top administrator in Malakand announced Saturday that all of the militants had left Buner, the Associated Press reported.

But Buner police chief Abdur Rasheed Khan, according to the AP, estimated later Saturday that at least 100 of the original 1,000 Taliban forces remained.

A spokesman for the army, which has thousands of troops in Swat currently confined largely to their barracks, said all armed Taliban had to leave Buner.

“If we get the confirmed news that they are still present, then they will be expelled from the area, and for that maybe we have to move the forces there,” Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas told a local TV channel.

About 50 militants blocked the main road leading into Swat Valley on Saturday, halting a column of six army trucks and two jeeps, local reports said.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan told the AP that the vehicles were carrying extra troops as well as supplies, in violation of the peace accord.

A military official said the convoy returned to the nearby town of Bari Kot.

While the Taliban militants take significant strides toward the federal capital by capturing district after district, a debate has surged in the country on whether the threat of Islamabad falling to the militants is genuine and whether the government and armed forces have any viable strategy to contain the Islamist fighters.

The Taliban, having already strengthened their position in Swat Valley through a peace deal with the NWFP government, occupied the neighboring districts of Buner and Shangla last week, thereby getting closer to Islamabad.

From the mountainous Buner, the Taliban may proceed toward the contiguous districts of Haripur and Swabi, both situated in plains. If they are able to occupy one of those districts, they will be in a position to reach Islamabad in an hour. Haripur and Swabi are connected with Islamabad by a wide road, and one section of the country’s largest expressway, the Peshawar-Islamabad Motorway, passes through Swabi en route to Islamabad.

Ayaz Amir, a senior Pakistani writer and analyst, who is also a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly, told The Washington Times that the Taliban threat was quite realistic and extremely dangerous, and the government and people must realize it.

“Although I think Taliban by themselves cannot capture Islamabad, … if the threat is not quarantined, then obviously it is going to pose a great problem,” said Mr. Amir, who opposed the enforcement of the deal with the Taliban. “Hitherto nothing serious has been done to prevent Taliban.”

“If the state goes on weakening, the political vacuum has to be filled by Taliban, and this is the biggest threat,” he said.

Retired Brig. Mahmood Shah, a leading security specialist, said the Taliban have both the intention and the potential to capture Islamabad.

“The way they violated the Swat agreement and made advancements towards other areas shows they have the intentions of trying to bring more and more territory under their control,” he said.

Brig. Shah said the Pakistani Islamists’ progress fits the pattern of the rise of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, where they gradually took area after area before reaching the capital, Kabul, in 1996.

Brig. Shah also noted that despite the growing Taliban insurgency in the northwest, Pakistan still sees India as its main security threat and has concentrated its military energies on the eastern border with India.

“At the moment, a total of four divisions of Pakistani armed forces are deployed on its western borders and inside cities and towns to counter al Qaeda and Taliban militancy, while around 10 corps are on the border with India,” he said.

Two or three divisions make a corps in the Pakistani armed forces.

Some analysts express doubt about the Taliban’s capacity to reach Islamabad. And some officials support giving the Taliban a free hand to expand their influence and gain territory as part of a strategy.

“We have so far not resisted Taliban from going to other districts, as we want to expose them to the public that despite fulfilling their main demand of establishment of Islamic courts in Malakand area, they have not kept their word of laying down arms and not to go to other districts,” said Sen. Haji Adeel, a senior leader of the ruling Awami National Party in the province.

The strategy has helped on one front: It has made past supporters of the Taliban deal suspect the Islamists’ true intentions.

Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the head of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a key religious group that previously ruled NWFP and is now a coalition partner in the federal government, criticized the provincial government for making a deal with the Taliban.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the main opposition party in the federal parliament, which had voted for enforcement of the deal with the Taliban, now openly criticizes the militants.

“I think Sufi is now crossing his limits,” senior party leader Zafar Ali Shah said, referring to Maulana Sufi Mohammad, head of an Islamist organization that negotiated the agreement between the government and the Taliban and became its guarantor.

As the movement of the Taliban closer to Islamabad raised alarm in the U.S. and elsewhere, Mr. Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani held an urgent meeting with the leaders of the North West Frontier Province on Friday. Gen. Kayani warned that the military will crack down severely if the militants do not reverse their move.

There were reports Saturday of a decision to launch a military operation in Buner, but military spokesmen would not confirm it.

Sen. Zahid Khan of the ruling Awami party in the province said, “We are trying to avoid a military operation because previously it had made the matter complex.”

He said a military operation “is a last resort” because “if it fails, then it is a disaster.”

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