Taliban militants packed up their grenade launchers and vacated a district they overran outside the country’s capital last week. The move did little, however, to quell the alarm of the US and Western allies.
US officials are concerned that Pakistan is unable or unwilling to forcefully deal with militants slowly expanding into the heart of the country from lawless areas close to the Afghan border.
The retreat on Friday from Buner, just 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Islamabad, came after talks between the militants and authorities, who had threatened to attack them and reconsider the peace agreement in the adjoining Swat Valley region that critics say has given Taliban and al-Qaida-linked militants a safe haven.
Witnesses said scores of militants had effectively taken control of Buner since the government formally agreed to the peace deal early this month. Critics said the advance was evidence Islamabad was wrong in talking with the insurgents.
Syed Mohammed Javed, the top government administrator in the region, said a hard-line cleric who helped mediate the peace deal persuaded the Taliban to return to Swat in a meeting on Friday.
“No need to worry, they all are on their way back,” Javed said from Buner. “We told them that we have a deal, we have a peace agreement. Our concern was that no official or private building remained in their control and that nobody was allowed to publicly display weapons.”
The retreat came a day after Taliban fighters opened fire on a few hundred lightly armed paramilitary troops sent to Buner, killing a police officer. Ikram Sehgal, a military analyst, said while attempts to insert the paramilitaries was a “fiasco,” the Taliban likely feared that a full-blown army operation might follow.
“Buner is basically a one-road valley that would have been easy to seal. It was a tactical retreat,” Sehgal said.
The Taliban’s advance into Buner triggered unusually strong condemnation from the United States, where lawmakers are considering a deal that would grant the country $1.5 million in aid each year to battle terrorism.
The top US military officer said he was “extremely concerned” by the situation in Buner and the government urged Pakistan to focus more on militants inside their borders than the nation’s longtime enemy - India. Most of Pakistan’s soldiers are deployed on its eastern border with India.
“We’re certainly moving closer to the tipping point” where Pakistan could be overtaken by Islamic extremists, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview from Afghanistan broadcast on Friday.
Gen. David Petraeus asked a House Appropriations subcommittee Friday for funding to help the Pakistani military root out and stop insurgents, saying he wants Pakistani leaders to realize they need to learn how to fight internal extremists.
TV images showed dozens of militants emerging on Friday from a high-walled villa that served as their headquarters in Buner, a rural area in the foothills of the Karakoram mountains.
The men, most of them masked with black scarves and carrying automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, clambered into several pickup trucks and minibuses before driving away.
The government agreed in February to impose Islamic law in Swat and surrounding areas of the northwest in return for a cease-fire that halted nearly two years of bloody fighting between militants and Pakistani security forces.
But hard-liners have seized on the concession to demand Islamic law across the country, and the Swat Taliban used it to justify their push into Buner, putting them within striking distance of the capital and key roads leading to the main northwestern city of Peshawar.
During their time in the area, the Taliban issued orders that prohibited women from going to the market alone and barbers from shaving beards. But commanders insisted their fighters had been preaching peacefully for Islamic law, or Sharia, in Buner.
Muslim Khan, their spokesman, said they were leaving the district “of their own accord, not under any pressure.”
Asked on Express News television if they were breaking the peace accord by carrying weapons, Khan said Sharia allowed every Muslim to carry a gun - “especially those busy in jihad.”
Javed said he and the hard-line cleric, Sufi Muhammad, were leading the Taliban convoy back to Mingora, Swat’s main town, but it was not clear when they would cross the mountains passes leading out of Buner.
With the pressure mounting, the military issued an unusually tough statement on Friday.
Apparently referring to the Swat deal, army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani said it was “meant to give the reconciliatory forces a chance (but) must not be taken for a concession to the militants.”
Kayani said the army was “determined to root out the menace of terrorism” and would “not allow the militants to dictate terms to the government or impose their way of life.”
Government leaders had also warned they would use force if the Swat Taliban _ who have beheaded opponents, torched schools for girls and denounced democracy as un-Islamic _ continue to challenge the state.
But they have also sought to counter a rising tide of extremist violence with dialogue and peace deals that critics worry only grant brutal extremists impunity, legitimacy and the time and space to muster more forces.