Taliban militants who overran a district just 60 miles from Islamabad left the area today, but not before creating a local Taliban force to keep control, according to residents.
The Taliban who will now patrol the Buner district of the North West Frontier Province represent a new tactic for the surging militancy in Pakistan, allowing a core group of militant Taliban to travel and spread their influence while placing areas they've already occupied under the command of a new generation of local recruits.
For three weeks Taliban fighters based in the Swat valley have moved in and out of the formerly peaceful area of Buner, largely thanks to a new agreement signed by the government placing a third of the Northwest Frontier Province under Islamic law.
Once they arrived in Buner, which is only a few hours drive from the capital, the Taliban did not stay long, but left behind recruiters to train a homegrown corps of Islamic fighters.
The Taliban returned in large numbers this week, to the alarm of the U.S. and Pakistani governments. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Pakistan of "abdicating" to the Taliban, while the local government responded by sending about 250 paramilitary troops into Buner to try and secure government buildings and bridges, according to the Pakistani military. The Taliban immediately ambushed the paramilitary forces as they arrived, killing one police officer guarding the convoy in a brief firefight.
The well-publicized announcement that a group of Taliban militants would leave Buner came during a visit by Sufi Muhammad, the government-sponsored Taliban negotiator who once led thousands of militants into Afghanistan to fight U.S. troops. Muhammad did not mention the local Taliban who would stay in Buner, but area residents confirmed their presence.
Army chief Gen. Parvez Kayani, perhaps the most powerful man in the country, defended the military's actions in the northwest today, calling a lack of military action against the Taliban an "operational pause."
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Kayani warned that military operations that had failed to defeat the Taliban in Swat over the last few years, put on pause after the peace deal was signed, could always be brought back. The army "will not allow the militants to dictate terms to the government or impose their way of life on the civil society of Pakistan," he said, according to a statement by the military's public affairs office.
He also criticized this week's barrage of American politicians' doubting whether the Pakistani government was able to defeat the Taliban.
Kayani, the statement said, "condemned pronouncements by outside powers raising doubts on the future of the country. A country of 170 million resilient people under a democratic dispensation, strongly supported by the Army, is capable of handling any crisis that it may confront."
U.S. officials, although pulling back from the particularly harsh words from Clinton was on Wednesday, continued their criticism today.
"The situation there is definitely worse than it was two weeks ago. It just continues to spin off," Admiral Mike Mullen, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in southern Afghanistan. Pakistan, he said, needs "aggressive leadership that takes action."
The deal to allow Islamic law in Pakistan's northwest was passed almost unanimously last week by a government frightened by imminent security threats, according to intelligence sources. But after a barrage of criticism in the last few days, some lawmakers have publicly doubted whether the deal was the right move or whether it can survive.
The latest Taliban incursion occurred despite efforts by the people of Buner to fend off the militants for months.
"We were crying for help because we knew we were next," 35-year-old Sami ur Rehman told ABC News, referring to the week before the Taliban overran Buner. "The government did not bother [to help] -- as if we did not matter."
Buner residents who have since fled their homes tell horrific stories of escape.
Police in Buner largely disappeared when the Taliban arrived, much as they did in Swat before the Islamic law was imposed on the region.
The Pakistani government hoped the Swat deal would placate the Taliban, bringing peace to a restive valley and confining militants to a section of the northwest they largely controlled already.
But the Taliban has ignored the stipulation that they disarm.