The move by Taliban-backed militants into the Buner district of northwestern Pakistan, closer than ever to Pakistan's capital of Islamabad, have prompted concerns both within the country and abroad that the nuclear-armed nation of 165 million is on the verge of inexorable collapse.
On Wednesday a local Taliban militia crossed from the Swat Valley where a February cease-fire allowed the implementation of strict Islamic, or Shari'a, law into the neighboring Buner district, which is just a few hours drive from Islamabad (65 miles, separated by a mountain range, as the crow flies). ((See pictures on the frontlines in the battle against the Taliban.)
Residents streaming from Buner, home to nearly a million people, told local newspapers that armed militants are patrolling the streets. Pakistani television stations aired footage of Taliban soldiers looting government offices and capturing vehicles belonging to aid organizations and development projects. The police, say residents, are nowhere to be seen. The shrine of a local Muslim saint, venerated across the country, was closed. The Taliban, which adheres to a stricter version of Islam than is practiced in most of Pakistan, hold that worship at such shrines goes against the teachings of Islam.
Meanwhile courts throughout the Malakand division, of which Swat and Buner are a part, have closed in deference to the new agreement calling for the implementation Shari'a, law. "If the Taliban continue to move at this pace they will soon be knocking at the doors of Islamabad," Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of one of the country's Islamic political parties, warned in Parliament Wednesday. Rehman said the Margalla Hills, a small mountain range north of the capital that separates it from Buner, appears to be "the only hurdle in their march toward the federal capital," The only solution, he said, was for the entire nation to accept Shari'a law in order to deprive the Taliban of their principal cause.
The fall of Buner is raising international alarm. Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton characterized the situation was a danger to Pakistan, the U.S. and the world. "We cannot underscore the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by continuing advances, now within hours of Islamabad, that are being made by a loosely confederated group of terrorists and others who are seeking the overthrow of the Pakistani state," Clinton said. She also accused Pakistan's leaders of "basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists" by signing the cease-fire agreement. (Read "Will Pakistan Toughen Up on the Taliban?")
Even before the fall of Buner, the capital was in a state of panic. Private schools were closed for two weeks for fear that militants would attempt a siege, along the lines of the Taliban attack on a police academy in Lahore last month. And an unspecified threat against foreigners two weeks ago resulted in the closure of the U.S. embassy and the British High Commission for a day.
On Sunday, just a week after Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari signed a provision allowing for the implementation of Islamic law in Malakand, Sufi Mohammad, the local religious leader who negotiated the accord (and who is father-in-law to the local Taliban leader), announced that he would not recognize the Supreme Court of Pakistan, even in cases of appeal. He also said that while the Taliban fighters would adhere to the peace agreement, they would not give up their arms. (Read "Can Pakistan Be Untangled from the Taliban?")