Pakistan moving closer to confronting the Taliban in Swat

McClatchy NewspapersMay 3, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's on Sunday edged closer to a major conflict with Taliban militants as a controversial peace deal with Islamic extremists in the Swat valley near the Afghan border began to unravel, according to military officials and politicians.

The bodies of two armed forces personnel were found Sunday, their heads severed and their bodies mutilated, in the Khwazakhela area of Swat. Kidnapped several days earlier while they were on leave, the army soldier and paramilitary trooper bore marks of severe torture, according to a security official, who couldn't be named because he's not authorized to speak to the media.

Separately, militants blew up a school in the Kabal area of Swat and attacked the electric grid station in the district's main town of Mingora. Officials said that Taliban were openly patrolling the streets of Mingora with their weapons, in violation of the peace deal. Authorities imposed a curfew in Mingora Sunday night.

"The militants have completely gone back on their pledges. They don't want peace, they just want an autonomous state," said the security official. "They are a menace. They have to be taken on, no matter how big the challenge."

The confrontation comes as President Asif Zardari is scheduled to arrive Tuesday in Washington, where he'll meet President Barack Obama and hold trilateral talks with U.S. and Afghan political leaders. Last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Pakistan of "abdicating to the Taliban," but in recent days the country's security forces have battled militants in parts of the troubled Northwest Frontier Province, though not in the militants' new stronghold of Swat.

The Obama administration has grown increasingly alarmed by the militants' advance, which if it continues could threaten a crucial U.S. supply route to Afghanistan, and by the Zardari government's efforts to fight the militants in some places while negotiating with them in others.

The administration, however, is also divided about both the causes of Pakistan's tentative responses to what Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday called "an existential threat," and about possible solutions to it.

Administration officials held a high-level meeting Saturday at the National Defense University in Washington to discuss how to implement their Afghanistan strategy.

Some officials blame Zardari and advocate reaching out to his main political opponent, Nawaz Sharif, but others distrust Sharif, who has ties to a number of Islamist groups and to Saudi Arabia.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, blames Pakistan's civilian leaders rather than the military for the indecisiveness. But others think that the military has been unable or unwilling to accept the fact that Islamic militancy, not Hindu-dominated India, is now the country's main enemy.

Pakistani forces have been battling militants first in Dir and then in Buner districts, which are on either side of Swat, since April 26, but a delicate truce had held in Swat since Feb. 16, when the provincial government and the Taliban, represented by radical cleric Sufi Mohammad, agreed to a ceasefire in return for the imposition of Islamic law.

Among the terms of the accord was a pledge by the Taliban to recognize the writ of the state and to stop "displaying" arms. But the deal, which Zardari signed on April 13, hasn't led to a disbanding of the Taliban, and even local officials who had pushed forthe accord express exasperation at the attempt to solve the Swat issue through dialogue.

"Between February 16 and now, there have been 190 violations (of the peace deal) on record. We are ready to fulfill our pledges. ... We say to them (the Taliban) even now, lay down your arms," Miam Iftikhar, the information minister for the North West Frontier Province told reporters.

Two Pakistani military efforts to dislodge the Taliban in Swat failed prior to the ceasefire accord, leading to significant civilian casualties and leaving almost total control of the area in the hands of the extremists.

But this time, with global attention on Swat and domestic criticism of the army's failure mounting, any new operation is likely to be much larger, possibly involving regular army troops rather than members of the Frontier Corps, whose zeal for dislodging the Taliban has been questioned. Like the Taliban, the Frontier Corps is made up largely of ethnic Pashtuns; the army is dominated by a Punjabis.

With soldiers now positioned on both sides of Swat, in Dir and Buner, the Pakistani army would be able to use a pincer movement to retake the huge Swat valley.

At the beginning of April, Taliban from Swat invaded Buner, which is just 60 miles from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, testing the resolve of the Pakistan army, which finally responded more than three weeks later under intense U.S. pressure with an operation to drive them out of Buner,

In a CNN interview on Sunday, Defense Secretary Gates described the Buner incursion as "a real wake-up call for the Pakistan government ... (of a) truly existential threat."

Pakistani public opinion had been largely hostile to fighting the Taliban at home, believing that negotiation was the best approach, but in recent weeks there's been a swing in sentiment behind the army and a military solution. The emergence of a video showing the Taliban in Swat flogging a young woman for alleged adultery, and their Buner expansion, appear to have jolted the public.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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