Pakistan's strategy of trying to appease Taliban militants is showing signs of backfiring, as extremists move within 60 miles of the capital and threaten to spread their influence throughout the country.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Wednesday that Pakistan's government is "basically abdicating to the Taliban" by agreeing to let them implement Islamic law in the Swat region last week. Instead of putting down their weapons, as the government had hoped, the insurgents have since moved fighters into the neighboring Buner region, local lawmaker Istiqbal Khan said.
President Asif Ali Zardari has blamed the Taliban for a wave of assassinations in Swat in recent months, and he condemned a recent video that showed militants flogging a young woman they accused of having an improper relationship.
Rehman Malik, the head of Pakistan's interior ministry, told parliament Wednesday that Zardari will not allow militants to take control of the nuclear-armed country. "If there is no peace, the government will use force," he said.
The Taliban is gaining strength in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they ruled until the U.S. invasion in 2001. President Obama has ordered an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan before the end of the year and has called on Zardari to crack down on areas such as Swat that could be used as bases for terrorists plotting to strike the U.S. Clinton told Congress that Pakistan "poses a mortal threat to the security" of the U.S. and the world.
Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif told USA TODAY this week that he was worried the militants were emboldened by the Swat deal.
Even some in Pakistan's relatively peaceful cities now feel unsafe. "The whole country is under threat," said Zahoor Ahmed, 41, a security guard.
The militants' actions have stirred a backlash among some. Hard-line cleric Sufi Muhammad, who brokered the Swat deal on behalf of the Taliban, called this week for Islamic law to be enforced nationwide — drawing condemnation even from conservatives. Muhammad "should not make these statements," said Sayed Munawar Hasan, the head of a major religious party.
Perceptions that the government has surrendered to the militants in Swat are "a misunderstanding," said Shoaib Bhutta, a journalist and confidant of Zardari's. By cutting the Swat deal, the president "wanted to show ... supporters of the militants what kind of people they are," Bhutta said.
Now, he says, the Pakistani public is finally realizing that "supporting this evil, which is eating our own people, would be a sin. If there is war, the public will support the government."
Contributing: Yasir Zahoor; the Associated Press