Thursday, April 23, 2009

DAGGAR, Pakistan | Taliban militants have expanded their operations from the Swat Valley to Buner, an adjacent region they now control that is just 60 miles from the capital, Islamabad.

Young militants armed with automatic weapons freely patrol roads, while their superiors lead prayers in mosques, where they recruit other fighters to join their campaign to impose Taliban rule throughout Pakistan.

Pir Baba is one such mosque. Named after a revered Sufi saint from the region, an adjacent shrine used to be visited daily by worshippers from all across the country.

However, they are no longer allowed to visit the shrine because the Taliban say Pir Baba devotees were involved in un-Islamic practices.

The Taliban expansion to Buner and elsewhere in Pakistan is happening rapidly, well before the Obama administration can begin implementing its regional strategy that depends on the Pakistani government’s willingness to fight the militants.

Speaking to The Washington Times at Pir Baba mosque, Taliban commander Ustad Yasir scoffed at demands from the Pakistani government to lay down their weapons - part of a purported peace deal in which President Asif Ali Zardari agreed to impose Islamic Shariah law in the Swat Valley.

“There is no agreement with the government that we will surrender our weapons,” Mr. Yasir said.

“We are not going to surrender. The army shall surrender,” said Mr. Yasir, surrounded by about a dozen militants in the main hall of the mosque.

Police are visible only in Suwari, the main bazaar of the Buner district, and at the government offices in Daggar, the district headquarters. They cannot go to militant strongholds, but the militants but are free to patrol Suwari.

Locals at the market said the police are limited to directing traffic. Moreover, they say local authorities have told police and other security forces not to hinder militant movements.

Those willing to speak openly to the media said they are happy with the imposition of Islamic law, which they believe will provide speedy justice.

Some have even welcomed the arrival of the Taliban. Their comments appear to reflect a dilemma that allows militant Islamists to draw support throughout the Middle East and South Asia - people grow so fed up with public corruption that the ascetic practices of Islamists look like an attractive alternative.

A 50-year-old man, accompanying his wife to a medical checkup at a clinic, said he feels secure with the arrival of the Taliban.

“I feel insecure in the presence of police. We want an Islamic system, and the Taliban are providing real justice. I do not believe Taliban kill somebody unjustifiably.”

Earlier this month, armed locals clashed with Taliban fighters when they first entered Buner from Swat, which lies about 40 miles further away from Islamabad.

Several people were killed in the clashes, which ended after the local administration negotiated a truce. Officials claimed they had persuaded the Taliban to withdraw. But when locals stopped fighting, the Taliban moved in.

“People feel betrayed by the commissioner of Malakand division because he had assured that militants will not move into Buner,” said a middle-aged man, who asked for anonymity because he feared retaliation by the Taliban. The Malakand region includes Swat and Buner.

With the Taliban arrival came the imposition of draconian rules. Banners at markets warn against woman entering without being escorted by a close male relative. Barbers have stopped shaving customers and posted signs saying that un-Islamic styles are not available.

“I can see Taliban freely patrol in the area. The district administration is not putting up any hurdles,” Abbass Khan, a lawyer, told The Times at his office in the district court building.

Mr. Khan said a majority of the people appear to want Islamic law because it offers “speedy justice.”

“Most of the people are poor, and they are being exploited by corrupt institutions and corrupt police,” Mr. Khan said.

“There is no speedy and inexpensive justice in the prevailing judicial system. I am counsel in a murder case which happened in 1979. Thirty years have been passed, but the case is still lingering in the courts.”

“Around 100 militants are operating in Buner,” said district administrator Ismail Khan.

He said militants are not hostile toward security officials. “It is peaceful in Buner. Taliban have not snatched weapons from police or occupied any police station. They are only preaching at mosques.”

Mr. Khan said he hoped establishment of Islamic courts will help restore peace across the entire Malakand region.

A local journalist, however, said people are frightened but won’t say so.

“Life is hard here. People are scared. [Nongovernmental organizations] have stopped their work,” said the journalist, who asked not to be named for his own safety.

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