Pakistan, Taliban Tensions Rise Over Key Valley

Taliban militants are pressing deeper into Pakistan. There are reports that the Taliban are within striking distance of key installations such as hydro-electric dams and a main highway leading to Islamabad. In response, the government has sent paramilitary police into the area.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in Detroit.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne at NPR West. Taliban militants are pressing deeper into Pakistan. They've moved into the small district of Buner; that's a mountainous area about three hours' drive from the capital, Islamabad. And there are reports that the Taliban are within striking distance of the main highway leading into the capital, and key installations such as hydroelectric dams. In response, the government has sent paramilitary police to Buner. NPR's Julie McCarthy joins us on the line from Islamabad.

Julie, tell us more about what's going on there in Buner. It seems like another bad turn of events for the Pakistani government.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Well, it does appear to be that way. However, the commissioner for that region that includes Buner told us that he had negotiated the departure of the Taliban from Buner today. So we'll watch those developments.

But the Taliban has been patrolling the streets there with guns and telling residents to strictly follow sharia law. The residents I contacted say they're terrified, and they want to get out.

Now, Buner is just over the hill from Swat Valley, where the militants control it. And the fact that they've spilled out over into Swat is significant because they've basically violated a peace deal last week. The peace deal said, you can have an Islamic legal system in Swat in exchange for laying down your arms. That hasn't happened. And critics say it shows the folly of peace deals with extremists.

MONTAGNE: Well, yeah, and we've heard stories of the Taliban saying their leaving an area and then they come back. Often, that's strategic on their part. What is the government doing, generally, to stop the Taliban?

MCCARTHY: Well, the government did send some 200 paramilitary police into Buner in the past 36 hours. But the locals complained that it came well after the Taliban had arrived - so, too little too late.

Now, and in addition, those forces are from the Frontier Constabulary, which is a British-era hangover. They're typically not well-equipped. And a leading member of Parliament told me last night that they're no match for this well-armed, sophisticated militancy. In fact, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported today, the Taliban effectively foiled the government's deployment there. They ambushed a convoy of these reinforcements, and they killed two policemen.

The army, so far, has stayed out of this, much to the relief of the locals, who say that they fear army operations just as much as the militants. In the Swat Valley, the army left a broad swath of destruction when they took on the militants. That disillusioned the people there, and the government is very keenly aware of that.

And so initially it said, look, a peace deal is the best gambit to restore peace to the Swat Valley, where the militants have beheaded their opponents, burned schools, intimidated the local population. But a leading member of parliament, in the opposition, said to me last night, the government has no idea what it's dealing with.

MONTAGNE: Julie, earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used some pretty strong language. She told the U.S. Congress that the Pakistani government has abdicated to the Taliban. That's a quote of hers. What has been the reaction there to those warnings?

MCCARTHY: Well, you're right. The public nature of this chorus is unusual between two allies. But, you know, Hillary Clinton's remark - that the Pakistani government was ceding ground to the Taliban - wasn't anything you don't hear members of the general public say here in Islamabad. Citizens are terrified that the government is losing its writ in parts of Pakistan. And they wonder why the government, as ordinary citizens put it, quote, surrender, unquote, to the demands of the Taliban.

Now, the prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, vowed yesterday not to allow anyone to run a parallel government in Pakistan. But increasingly, the question's being asked: Is there a lack of capacity here, or a lack of will?

MONTAGNE: NPR's Julie McCarthy, speaking from Islamabad, Pakistan. Thanks very much

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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