Pakistani Taliban promise tough fight

By Nadeem Sarwar,DPA,

Pir Baba (Pakistan) : Preparations to put up tough resistance to a military advance to flush out Taliban fighters from Pakistan’s north-western Buner Valley were in full swing.

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Thousands of militants and their local supporters were constructing bunkers in the vast green hills that encircle the region while roadside bombs had already been planted along key routes. Short training courses for newly recruited fighters were also under way in some villages.

“We will fight here to our last breath,” said Taliban commander Ustad Raees in a two-hour interview at a mosque in Pir Baba village. Half a dozen local supporters and a fighter carrying an AK-47 assault rifle nodded in assent when Raees vowed to defeat “the enemy.”

“You will see how we fight,” he smiled as he brushed his thick, black beard with his fingers.

Hours after Tuesday’s interview, Pakistani military and paramilitary troops, backed by jet aircraft and helicopter gunships, launched an offensive in Buner, a lush, tree-studded valley of meandering rivers and open fields.

Raees, a well-built, soft-spoken commander in his early 30s, is originally from the neighbouring Swat district, where the government signed a peace accord in February to end 16 months of fighting and accepted militant demands for the enforcement of Islamic law.

The government had hoped the goodwill gesture would encourage the rebels to lay down their weapons, but an emboldened Taliban dispatched fighters to the neighbouring districts of Dir in the west and Buner in the east, raising concerns that the insurgents were expanding their influence.

Buner is strategically important because it brings the militants hardly 100 km from Islamabad, the capital of a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

After invading Buner early this month, the insurgents took over state buildings, looted the offices of non-governmental organisations and set up checkpoints across the district of around 600,000 people.

They also barred women from public places, prohibited co-education, forbade barbers from shaving men, shut down music shops and banned the sale of mobile phone ringtones in line with their narrow interpretation of Islam.

After a government warning that its advance was a violation of the February peace agreement, the Taliban staged a fake pullout before cameras last week while they continued consolidating their grip on the region.

“The Taliban came here around 12 days ago, and they are still here,” said Ghanur Rehman, a 22-year-old shopkeeper in Swari, the main trading centre in the Buner district. “They have powerful vehicles, wireless (radio sets) and weapons – everything.”

“They preached to people in the local mosque and asked them to join 20-day training programmes at their centres in the Pir Baba and Bagra areas,” he said. “Some students from local Islamic seminaries and unemployed young men have joined the Taliban.”

Many more started to wear embroidered red caps like the one worn by Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the militant leader killed during a military commando operation at Islamabad’s radical Red Mosque in July 2007, to show moral support for the insurgents.

“There might be some 3,000 armed militants who have taken positions in the mountains,” a local intelligence officer said. “They have taken all the strategically important hilltops and will welcome the security forces with gunfire and roadside bombs when they pass through the mountain roads.”

Lacking resources, local police were little motivated to fight well-trained and well-equipped fighters.

“We are 12 people here, and everyone has one Kalashnikov and that’s all,” policeman Hameed Khan said as he guarded a checkpoint at an entrance to the Buner district. “They (the Taliban) carry light machine guns and rocket launchers.”

“Last night, they were patrolling down there, and we could do nothing,” he said as he pointed to a road.

But one reason for the hesitation on the part of the local police is also that the support for the Taliban is growing, particularly among the young and underprivileged ethnic Pashtun population as they address long-ignored social issues.

Residents were especially happy after the Taliban forced a powerful landlord, Motabar Khan, to flee the area under its campaign to eliminate the existing feudal system that has suppressed the poor for decades.

“He had behaved like a pharaoh for years,” said a local who requested anonymity. “Last year, his men tore the clothing off a butcher and dragged him naked in the streets because he had asked Motabar Khan’s servant to pay for the meat he bought.”

The Taliban took over Khan’s farms and three marble factories and asked their workers to pay the fundamentalist fighters 10 percent of the profits and distribute the rest among themselves.

“There is a misconception about us that we will take Pakistan back to the Stone Age,” said Raees as he served visiting journalists glasses of lassi, a yogurt drink. “To the contrary, we are progressive.”

“We want progress in education, science and technology,” he said. “We are not even against female education, but we are against co-education, which Islam does not allow.”

Raees said the Taliban would continue its jihad until Islam was enforced “in the last inch of Pakistan”.

The government pledged to fight so Raees’ vision does not become reality.

“Everybody knows that they are just brutal killers,” said Sardar Babak, a minister in the North-West Frontier Province, where Buner is located. “The Taliban’s talk of progress is just another way to mask their real intentions.”

“Don’t worry – we will stop them,” he added. “The operation has been ordered to expel them from Buner.”