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To keep Taliban away, Pakistan recruits 25,000 retired soldiers

They will protect residents returning to Swat and Buner. Some have fled again after seeing Taliban in the area, despite a major Army offensive.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 17, 2009

Peshawar, Pakistan

The government is recruiting 25,000 retired Pakistani soldiers for police duty in war-torn Swat and Buner districts to protect millions of displaced residents as they return home.

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The idea is to triple the number of police stations and bolster the force above levels present before the Taliban drove them out. The extra manpower would serve as an additional shield against militants returning to launch raids or influence the population.

Early reports point to just such a resurgence in Taliban activity there. Returned residents and local journalists say that Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah has been heard on FM radio. In Buner – the first region that the military moved in to clear – the Taliban are setting up fresh checkpoints, pressuring refugees for money, and have burned the home of an outspoken journalist.

To quickly put more police on the ground, officials are turning to retired soldiers, who require less time to train and are less skittish about dangerous assignments. The strategy carries some risk given the differences between soldiering and police work.

"The best option is to train fresh people, because the nature of the job is different," says security analyst Gen. Talat Masood (ret.). "But the circumstances are such that [officials] have to fill in the gaps" in available recruits.

Hundreds of militants still in Buner

Time is of the essence, given that returning residents are already encountering problems with militants.

Several families who returned home to Buner three days ago fled again after finding the Taliban in the area. They estimated some 250 to 350 Taliban remain, and sometimes appear in groups as large as 60 at one time. The militants were threatening people and demanding payments of 25,000 rupees ($305), which happens to be the amount the government is giving displaced people on ATM cards as they head home.

The Taliban are "threatening people, and some of them were beaten for getting assistance from the government," says Ikhtiar Bacha, who left Buner with his family two days after arriving.

Three family members of an influential local in Buner were killed by militants in the past week, according to Ikhtiar's brother, Mukhtiar Bacha. "More people will flee the area in the coming days," he predicts.

Taliban chief returns to radio, briefly

Taliban leader Mr. Fazlullah's voice on FM radio early this week in Swat was an echo of days when the Taliban controlled the population through such broadcasts, which often included warnings or threats. His speech, which reports say was jammed within several minutes, raises doubts about military claims that Fazlullah had been injured in an airstrike.

According to General Masood, it could have been an old cassette recording.

Another sound returned to Mingora, the main city in Swat, recently: music, which militants there had banned. Abdullah, a student, said it was strange to hear music again in the city, where displaced people began returning Friday.