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U.S. Urges Pakistan to Repel Taliban

U.S. Urges Pakistan to Repel Taliban

Author: Zahid Hussain, Matthew Rosenberg and Jay Solomon
Publication: The Wall Street Journal
Date: April 24, 2009
URL: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124049796262448143.html

The U.S. called on Pakistan's military to fight the Taliban forces who have taken over territory near the capital, as alarmed U.S. officials considered whether an Islamist-backed rival of Pakistan's president would defend the country more effectively from extremist forces.

Pakistan's initial modest effort to resist the Taliban's expansion failed Thursday as a government militia of a few hundred troops tried to retake government buildings in the insurgent-controlled Buner district, 70 miles from Islamabad. The government force was beaten back in a firefight that left one local police officer dead and highlighted the government's lack of options in fighting a spreading militancy.

Taliban militants, who pushed President Asif Ali Zardari into accepting a truce by chasing government troops out of the Swat Valley and taking control, broke that newly signed peace accord by expanding into neighboring Buner.

Land Grab

The U.S. and other critics of the deal had warned against just such a scenario. But Pakistan's government and military appeared unable to quickly craft an effective plan to stop the Taliban's strategic land grab.

"It is important they not only recognize it but take the appropriate actions to deal with it," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters Thursday.

The developments have pushed the U.S. to contemplate a closer alliance with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted in a military coup that installed Mr. Zardari's predecessor as head of government, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

U.S. and European officials now believe Mr. Sharif's long ties to Islamist political parties and leaders could position him better to convince the Pakistani public of the need to confront the Taliban. For years, the U.S. had kept its distance from Mr. Sharif -- who was in exile in Saudi Arabia -- precisely because of those ties.

"By and large, Sharif could be in a better position to deliver what the U.S. wants," said a U.S. official working on Pakistan policy.

How the Pakistan government handles the growing Taliban threat affects the future not just of the nuclear-armed nation of 170 million, but of neighboring Afghanistan. President Barack Obama has placed a high U.S. priority on battling a rising Taliban insurgency on the Afghan side -- and is rapidly expanding U.S. forces there.

U.S. military officials and policy makers say that the porous border with Pakistan is one of their chief obstacles to winning the Afghan war. They have criticized Pakistan for not doing enough to prevent insurgents crossing the border to attack U.S. troops.

If the Taliban continue their march deeper into Pakistan, it could deflect government resources to preventing the overrunning of Pakistan itself. Police and security agencies have been put on high alert in two of Buner's neighboring districts, Mardan and Swabi, where Taliban activity is now reported to be rising.

"If the Taliban continue their advances at the current pace they will soon be knocking at the doors of Islamabad," Fazl-ur-Rehman, who leads the country's largest Islamic party, told the parliament on Wednesday.

Meeting With Obama

U.S. and European officials' confidence in Mr. Zardari, who is scheduled to meet with Mr. Obama in Washington on May 6-7, is ebbing. U.S. officials say Mr. Zardari's government has been cooperative in U.S. efforts to increase the number of drone strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban targets in the tribal areas. But there's a growing sense that Mr. Zardari doesn't have the experience or the political support inside Islamabad to prosecute a successful war against the Taliban. U.S. officials note he appears isolated in his presidential office in Islamabad.

Mr. Zardari is still the democratically elected president from a party that enjoys wide popularity in Pakistan. Some Pakistani leaders have talked of changing Pakistan's constitution to weaken the powers of the presidency. Such a move could serve as a democratic vehicle for Mr. Sharif to eventually emerge as Pakistan's prime minister, say these officials.

Last month, U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke helped broker a compromise allowing Mr. Sharif, who had been banned, back into the political system, though he holds no office now. Mr. Zardari had dispatched troops to confront Mr. Sharif's supporters. U.S. officials were concerned Mr. Zardari was seeking to wield too much personal power and that the Pakistani military would use the instability as a pretext for a coup. U.S. and British officials threatened Western aid would be cut if Mr. Zardari didn't back down. He did.

The Pakistani government's ability to push back forcefully against the Taliban advance has been limited. A senior military officer said there was growing pressure from the army to renew the fight against the 6,000 to 8,000 militants who officials estimate are now in Swat and Buner.

Fought to Standstill

There is no guarantee the army would win if hostilities resumed. Though it has received huge financial backing from the U.S., Pakistan's 500,000-strong military remains geared toward the threat of conventional warfare with neighboring India rather than counterinsurgency. The militants in Swat fought the army to a standstill and the army has no soldiers in Buner.

"We are fully aware of the present threat posed by terrorism and are taking all measures to counter it," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, chief military spokesman. "Of course it requires more capacity building and better techniques to fight militancy."

Any military response also would require the backing of Pakistan's citizenry. "We need public support to fight militants," Gen. Abbas said. So far, that has been lacking.

The Swat peace deal won broad support in Pakistan's parliament and was signed last week by Mr. Zardari, a move that formalized the imposition of sharia law in the area. Many poorer Pakistanis find the Taliban's promises of speedy justice and equality attractive.

Pakistan's populace also has railed against the strikes against militants in the mountains by the U.S. drones, viewed by many as an invasion of the nation's sovereignty. Pakistan's political elite, for its part, is often more focused on internal squabbles and power struggles, critics contend, and still hasn't come to appreciate the looming threat the Taliban pose as they move toward the capital.

Thursday, the Taliban consolidated their control on Buner after taking over government buildings and the homes of wealthy landlords, setting up checkpoints and patrolling roads.

Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the militants wouldn't interfere with Buner's administration. But local officials said courts shut down after Taliban representatives said Islamic courts would be established. The police, the officials added, have largely melted away.

The force of a few hundred troops from the Frontier Corps -- an often underequipped and poorly paid force designed to police the country's border with Afghanistan -- was too small to seriously challenge the Taliban fighters.

Authorities said the Frontier Corps forces were there only to protect government buildings and bridges.

There was no sign Thursday of the corps in Buner's main town, Daggar, the Associated Press reported.

- Write to Matthew Rosenberg at matthew.rosenberg@wsj.com and Jay Solomon at jay.solomon@wsj.com

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