The Taliban takeover of the district of Buner in Pakistan’s insurgency-plagued Northwest Frontier Province has accelerated as forces are fanning out through the region unopposed.
Security forces and the tribal lashkars, or militias, have not resisted the Taliban advance. “They have taken control of vast areas in Buner,” a witness told Dawn “They are freely moving around while police and other law-enforcement personnel remain confined to their posts.”
Police were ordered not to fight the Taliban, an officer said. “We have been asked by our seniors not to interfere with the Taliban,” an officer said, while claiming the Taliban carried advanced weapons.
The Taliban are patrolling the main roads in the district and are just outside the main town of Daggar, according to Dawn. Taliban fighters have taken control of the homes of tribal leaders who raised the lashkars and threatened to punish them for opposing the advance.
The local tribes in Buner raised lashkars earlier this week and clashed with the Taliban as they entered the district. Sixteen Taliban fighters, three policemen, and two tribal fighters were reported to have been killed.
Taliban fighters have begun to enforce their radical brand of sharia, or Islamic law, in Buner. “Militants set on fire TV sets, pictures and paintings and audio and video cassettes before the Friday prayers,” Dawn reported. “They locked the [Pir Baba] shrine, stopping followers of Pir Baba from visiting the place.” Pir Baba was a Sufi saint. The Taliban have targeted Sufi shrines during their takeover of Northwestern Pakistan.
The push to overtake Buner comes just one day after the Taliban agreed to withdraw from Buner. Yesterday, Syed Mohammad, the Malakand Division Commissioner, said the Taliban would pull out of Buner on April 10. Instead the Taliban used the negotiations as cover to finish their push into the defenseless district.
Pakistani tribes unable to resist the Taliban onslaught
Last fall, the Pakistani government and the military encouraged tribal leaders to raise lashkars to oppose the spread of the Taliban. Since the beginning of 2008, Pakistani tribes organized lashkars in regions in Bajaur, Peshawar, Khyber, Swat, Dir, Buner, and Lakki Marwat. The tribes have had some success in driving the Taliban from local areas by conducting patrols and burning down the homes of Taliban fighters and their supporters, but ultimately failed to halt the Taliban advance.
“The Taliban is more vicious, more motivated, and more capable than the tribes,” a US military officer who closely follows the situation in northwestern Pakistan told The Long War Journal. “Time and time again, the Taliban has ruthlessly crushed any resistance. It doesn’t matter if it is the tribes, the police, the Frontier Corps, or the Army, the Taliban continues to gain ground.”
The Taliban have viciously responded to efforts by tribal leaders to oppose the spread of extremism. Tribal opposition has been violently attacked and defeated in Peshawar, Dir, Arakzai, Khyber, and Swat. Suicide bombers have struck at tribal meetings held at mosques, schools, hotels, and homes.
The Taliban have also made examples of local leaders who have dared to resist. In Swat, the Taliban executed a local tribal leader named Pir Samiullah, then returned to the village to dig up his body and hang it in the town square. The villagers were warned not to remove his body or they would face the same fate.
Samiullah’s tribe was the showcase for Pakistan’s “awakening,” the indigenous tribal uprising against the Taliban modeled after Iraq’s Sunni resistance to al Qaeda and allied jihadi groups. The Swat tribal resistance collapsed with Samiullah’s death and desecration.
Problems with manpower, training, geography, coordination between the tribes, and support from the military and government plague the tribal efforts to oppose the Taliban.
The Pakistani tribes are operating as distinct, local fighting forces with no central coordination, while the Taliban can coordinate their activities across the northwest and even from inside eastern Afghanistan. The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud’s unified Taliban command, was established to share manpower and resources and to coordinate activities.
“The tribes are limited by geography, the TTP [Pakistani Taliban] is not,” a senior US military intelligence official told The Long War Journal in September 2008 [see LWJ report: Pakistan engages the tribes in effort to fight the Taliban]. “Moreover, the Taliban out-number and out-gun them by more than 20 to 1. The tribes may achieve tactics success in some areas, but likely will fail to achieve strategic success.”
The problems are complicated by the tribes’ unwillingness to cooperate with the government and the military. “We keep the government away,” a senior tribal leader in Lakki Marwat told Geo News last fall.
The tribes fear cooperation with the government will further turn the Taliban and sympathetic tribes against them. “If we became part of the government they would become an excuse, a liability, a rallying cry against us,” the Lakki Marwat tribal leader said. Similar sentiments were expressed by Buner tribal leaders earlier this week. This attitude prevents the military from providing the needed security to oppose massed Taliban attacks.
For more information on problems with Pakistan’s “Awakening,” see:
Nov. 21, 2007