ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's president bowed to Islamists' demands Monday and agreed to impose Islamic law in part of the country's North West Frontier province, and al Qaida-allied militants overran a neighboring district 60 miles from the capital of Islamabad.
The takeover in Buner in the past several days, with almost no resistance from Pakistani security forces, marked a major advance for the militants, and the government's endorsement of Islamic law in Swat further increased their political clout.
In Washington, the Obama administration had no immediate comment. However, with the Taliban's advances, the military's inability or unwillingness to combat the Islamic militants, the government's weakness and the country's economic crisis, Pakistan constitutes the most serious security threat the administration faces.
President Asif Ali Zardari signed the agreement to introduce Sharia Islamic law in Swat, a huge valley in the North West Frontier province, a few hours after parliament, under what amounted to a death threat from the Pakistani Taliban, unanimously approved a resolution backing the move.
The Pakistani capital itself was on high alert and all but sealed off following threats of a terrorist attack.
A U.S. defense official, however, said that the loss of Buner "should be a wake-up call, that (the militants) are just not going to settle for Swat. They're going to continue to consolidate power."
The takeover of Buner and the imposition of Sharia in Swat are an e outgrowth of the Taliban's violent conquest of Swat, completed in February. The provincial government in the Frontier Province had forged a deal with Taliban extremists, agreeing to the imposition of Islamic law in return for an end to the fighting, but the accord didn't enter into force because Zardari had hesitated to give the necessary assent.
The U.S. has voiced concerns over the deal in Swat as have members of Pakistan's small liberal elite. But politicians said they were left with few options after a band of marauding Taliban defeated the Pakistani army in Swat.
"This (Sharia) has been imposed from a position of defeat," said Iqbal Haider, a co-chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent group. "This is a formula for the Talibanization of Pakistan."
It appears that Western-style schools, where English is the language of instruction, could be the extremists' next target. Several schools in Islamabad closed Monday, and others in Punjab province, the country's most populous region, hurriedly beefed up their security.
In the parliamentary debate, the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party led the argument in favor of introducing Sharia law. Only one political party, the Karachi-based MQM, was critical of the deal, but it abstained rather than vote no. Farooq Sattar, a leader of the MQM, said that his party doesn't believe in "agreements made at gunpoint". Earlier Monday, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., visiting Pakistan, had praised the country's democracy.
Zardari's spokesperson, Farahnaz Ispahani, said that the president signed the Sharia agreement "after passing of unanimous resolution by parliament which reflects the wishes of the people of Pakistan."
In Swat, which has suffered a two-year campaign of terror at the hands of the Taliban, there was widespread relief over Zardari's assent. Since the deal was reached with the provincial authorities in February, the Taliban have taken a much lower profile, but the delay in getting Islamabad's approval raised fears that the gunmen would be back on the streets.
According to reports from Swat late Monday, residents were celebrating by firing guns in the air and handing out candy. The Swat Taliban said that they "appreciated" the parliament's endorsement of the deal.
Mehmood Shah, an analyst who formerly was a senior official in the Frontier province, said the Pakistan government "doesn't have a plan" for dealing with the extremists. He said its lack of a strategy is contributing to the militancy's spread.
Swat, a mountainous region, was Pakistan's top tourist destination before Pakistani Taliban militants became entrenched there in 2007. The militants, who are based in the semi-autonomous tribal area west of Swat, are allied with al Qaida. Until this week, Swat was the only "settled" area in Pakistan — a regular part of the country — that militants have annexed.
The Sharia agreement applies not only in Swat but also in surrounding districts, including Buner to its southeast and Dir to its west. Dir, which borders Afghanistan, appears to be the next Taliban target.
Around a week ago, hundreds of armed militants moved into Buner district, which has a population of around 500,000, and killed three policemen and two residents. Now, without resistance by the armed forces, they've taken over a shrine, the homes of tribal leaders, and they now patrol the area, imploring the youth there to join them, according to local media reports. From Buner, the Taliban could go east or west to strategically important positions.
Pakistan's English-language press has been scathing about the Buner debacle. The News, a daily newspaper, said that residents "had no support from the federal or provincial government and it was, in military terms, a walk-over for the Taliban."
The Daily Times, in an editorial published Sunday, said: "Pakistan needs help because it can't fight the Taliban. What should the world community do when it sees a state being usurped by terrorists who clearly intend to spread their terrorism around the world?"
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
McClatchy Newspapers 2009