Pakistan makes show of force against Taliban

The government deployed troops to militant-controlled Buner district Thursday amid growing foreign concern about Taliban encroachment.

Mohammad Sajjad/AP
A Taliban militant holds his weapon inside the mosque where tribal elders and the Taliban met in Daggar, Buner's main town, Pakistan, Thursday. A meeting between tribal elders and the Taliban on Thursday in Daggar ended without any indication that the Taliban would withdraw.

Pakistan deployed some 300 paramilitary troops Thursday to a northwestern area that fell under Taliban control this week, in a modest show of force aimed at containing the increasingly aggressive militants.

For several days, Taliban members have been making patrols and looting offices in Buner, a district in the North West Frontier Province that neighbors the Swat Valley, where the group also recently took control. Both areas lie about 60 miles from Islamabad, Pakistan's capital.

The paramilitary troops are "too small in number to engage in direct conflict" with the Taliban in Buner, says Rahimullah Yusufzai, editor of The News, a leading English-language daily. "They are more of a show of force in the face of an enemy that has thus far met little resistance."

Two policemen in Buner, who were tasked with protecting the paramilitary troops, were reported killed Thursday after coming under machine-gun fire, though it was not immediately clear if militants were responsible.

Growing foreign concern

The deployment comes amid growing foreign concern about the Taliban threat. On Wednesday, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized the Pakistani government as "basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists." Her reference was to a recent deal made with the Taliban in Malakand Division – which includes Swat and Buner – to impose Islamic law, or sharia, in exchange for peace.

More Pakistani leaders are starting to view the Taliban as breaking their end of the bargain by not laying down their arms. The party of popular opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, PML-N, which initially supported the peace deal,said Wednesday that it should be reviewed if it makes the government look weak, and warned that the Taliban may in fact wish to "eventually capture the whole of Pakistan."

"We will not let Pakistan be captured by a force in Islam's garb that has already been the cause of destruction in Afghanistan," said Khwaja Mohammad Asif, a senior PML-N official.

The Army, however, may proceed cautiously to avoid being seen as the party that violates the peace agreement, says Rifaat Hussain, an analyst at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

Army's instructions

The forces, part of the NWFP's Frontier Constabulary, arrived with instructions to shore up local law enforcement and not to engage the Taliban, according to Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas. But "the contingency plans of the military are always there," should they meet resistance, he says.

For now, says Mr. Hussain, the deployment of paramilitary troops "does signal a response that the government is not willing to let [the Taliban] get beyond where they reached."

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