Pakistani Taliban expand influence beyond Swat

They swarmed the neighboring district of Buner and secured the right to preach in mosques there.

B.K. Bangash/AP/FILE
Supporters of Sufi Muhammad, the hard-line cleric who negotiated a peace deal between the Taliban and the government, listen to him speak in Mingora, the capital of Swat.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Naveed Ali/AP
Taliban members stand at the entrance of a shrine at a mosque in Buner, Pakistan. This week the Taliban secured the right to preach in mosques in the area.

In the same week that the Pakistani Taliban secured their demand for Islamic law in the Swat Valley, they moved into a neighboring district and won the right to preach in mosques there. This success in Buner came with little fighting – unlike in Swat, where they'd battled government forces on and off since 2007.

The move suggests that the Taliban, having gained a foothold in Swat, intend to spread their influence more broadly in Pakistan – and may face little resistance in some areas.

This continues their expansion beyond their stronghold in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan to the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where Swat and Buner are located. The two areas lie about 60 miles from Islamabad, the capital. Already, suicide bombings there and in nearby Lahore have grown more frequent over the past several months.

In Buner, resistance crumbles fast

Residents in Buner initially fought the incoming Taliban last week by forming a lashkar, or tribal militia. According to newspaper reports, they killed 20 militants. But they soon found themselves outnumbered as hundreds more Taliban fighters swarmed the area.

Buner tribal elders met with Taliban representatives twice in the past week at a jirga, or council. They guaranteed the militants the right to preach in mosques, as long as they did not threaten local residents or their property. The fighters agreed to leave by last Friday.

But that promise remains unfulfilled. Although more than 100 had departed as of Monday, armed Taliban militants are still roaming freely through marketplaces and mingling with local tribesmen, says Abdur Rahman Abid, a journalist based in Sultanwas, a village in Buner. "They say, 'We're here on the orders of our [leader], and we can do as we please if it helps implement sharia [Islamic law],' " Mr. Abid says.

Government officials say they can't prevent the peaceful entrenchment of the Taliban in Buner. "If a tribe invites a religious group to preach in their mosque, there's nothing we can do about it," says Haji Adeel, senior vice president of the Awami National Party (ANP), the secular political party that heads the NWFP provincial government.

In their sermons, the Taliban advocate the implementation of Islamic law and urge youths to undergo militant training so they can confront Western forces. In Buner, though, as a concession to local religious sentiment, the militants agreed to safeguard the mausoleum of a popular Sufi saint, Pir Baba. The Taliban, who follow a strict interpretation of Islam, reject Sufism, a more mystical strand of the religion.

Willing to make concessions

The Taliban's deal in Buner indicates that they are willing to assert control – and propagate Islamic law or teachings – through nonviolence, says Riffat Hussain, a security analyst at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

"The Taliban is doing the same thing they did in Swat, but they're using a softer approach," he says. "They've put on velvet gloves instead of going for a hard punch."

Mr. Adeel, the government official, views this as a positive sign. "The Taliban have seen that they can work within the writ of the government's law and there is no need to take up arms," he says.

Like many Pakistanis, including government officials, Adeel sees benefits to negotiating and coexisting with the Taliban in order to avoid bloodshed or internal displacement, despite international criticism of that approach. That perspective helped smooth Monday's passage of the Nizam-e-Adl Regulation, which imposes Islamic law in Swat and surrounding areas, fulfilling a peace agreement with the Taliban there. The National Assembly approved the bill unanimously Monday, and President Asif Ali Zardari signed it into law shortly afterward.

Unhappy with the Taliban

Whether the deal in Buner will ensure the Taliban's peaceful presence there remains unclear. Militants have vowed to identify and punish members of the lashkar who rose up to fight them.

On Monday, according to Dawn, a leading English-language daily, Taliban members briefly detained a government official they had mistakenly identified as belonging to the lashkar, along with his security personnel.

Buneris have a history of conflict with the Taliban, says Zahid Hussain, author of "Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam." Last year, villagers in Shalbandai killed six militants. The Taliban later took revenge through a suicide bombing during local elections, killing dozens of people.

"There will be resistance to the Taliban in Buner," says Mr. Hussain in a telephone interview from Islamabad. "The locals are traditionally opposed to militants. There's also the problem that militants [follow] Wahhabi Islam while Buneris are devotees of a Sufi saint."

Local residents are being forced to accept the jirga's decisions because the Taliban militants are heavily armed and "adamant on controlling the area," he continues.

Villagers from Sultanwas have been leaving their homes for fear of clashes between the Taliban and security forces.

According to Abid, the journalist, Taliban militants are occupying the homes of fleeing villagers and seizing their weapons.

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