After weeks of watching the Taliban swagger menacingly across Pakistan's northwest as U.S. leaders anxiously demanded action against what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called a "mortal danger," the Pakistani army has moved off the sidelines. On Tuesday it unleashed a barrage of air and artillery strikes as part of a fresh offensive against the hundreds of Taliban fighters who defied government warnings to leave the Buner Valley, just 70 miles (about 110 km) from Islamabad. Military officials said the offensive was triggered after the army intercepted Taliban phone conversations that purportedly revealed that last Friday's withdrawal from Buner had been a "symbolic" exercise for the benefit of the cameras and that they planned to linger in Buner before recapturing it.
The Taliban's undimmed ambitions have underscored the perils of the peace agreement the government signed in the militant-controlled Swat Valley, in which it caved in to Taliban demands for the imposition of Islamic law in the area. But although the authorities are now fighting to push the Taliban out of the areas into which they have recently expanded, it's not yet clear whether they have either the ability or the intent to reverse the Taliban's takeover of Swat. (See pictures of the Taliban's takeover of Buner.)
Paramilitary troops from the Frontier Corps, backed by gunships, helicopters and fighter jets, moved against an estimated 450 to 500 Taliban fighters scattered across the Buner Valley. Regular infantry and artillery brigades have been sent to reinforce the effort, and all roads into Buner have been sealed off, with a curfew imposed in nearby areas. Major General Athar Abbas, the military's chief spokesman, said the aim is to "eliminate or expel" the militants. "We'll start from various positions, and we'll move forward with the help of our firepower and clear the [Buner] valley of the militants," he told reporters at the army's headquarters in the garrison town of Rawalpindi.
The Taliban's capture of Buner last week triggered domestic and global alarm. They had entered the idyllic valley earlier this month, progressively reinforcing their ranks and menacing local residents. Policemen were kidnapped and killed; gas stations and marble factories were seized for potential revenue. The Taliban barred women from marketplaces and occupied a centuries-old shrine consecrated to a Sufi saint. As the Taliban established their own checkpoints and the police retreated into their stations, there was little doubt as to who controlled the area.
Pressed by Washington and by public opinion in Pakistan, the government made clear in negotiations with the Taliban that it could not tolerate their extending their authority beyond Swat and the militants staged their photo-opportunity withdrawal. But as TIME reported earlier this week, scores of fighters remained visible in the valley. "After the government's repeated warnings, only a symbolic withdrawal was made," said General Abbas. The militants simply scaled down their visible presence and removed their checkpoints while continuing to recruit locals to be sent for training in Swat.
Transcripts of the purportedly intercepted conversations between Maulana Fazlullah and Taliban leaders on the ground reveal a plan to hunker down and seize control later. The contents of the tapes cannot be independently verified and a taped "intercept" provided by authorities following the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was widely derided. But the conversation contains a striking passage in which "Fateh" a code name believed to be used by Taliban commander Maulvi Khalil, who led the militants into Buner urges Fazlullah to declare an end to the Swat cease-fire and warns of his men's plans should they come under attack from the security forces. "This time, we will blast the mines as well," Fateh says. "We will also fire rockets. And we will do something that they'll remember. Tomorrow you will say you didn't know. Tell us now that you've decided so that we end the agreement. From now, we will do the job."
The episode has raised questions about the role of Sufi Muhammad, the ostensibly reformed militant with whom the government brokered the Swat agreement. Muhammad, who led an insurgency in Swat in the 1990s to demand Shari'a law, is the father-in-law of Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah and was imprisoned after returning in 2002 from Afghanistan, where he'd gone to join the fight against the U.S. The government had hoped he would serve as a bulwark against the Taliban once his Shari'a demand had been met, but now fears are growing that Muhammad may in fact be in league with the militants. Earlier this month, in a public meeting in Swat's main town of Mingora, he openly denounced democracy, parliament and Pakistan's judicial system as "un-Islamic."
The new transcript suggests Muhammad was complicit in a plan to stage what looked like a withdrawal from Buner in order to consolidate the Taliban's position. Also implicated by the military was Syed Muhammad Javed, the commissioner of Malakand division at the time, who has been suspended from his post after being suspected of pro-Taliban sympathies.
As the military began to pound Taliban positions in his home district of Lower Dir on Monday, Sufi Muhammad declared that he was withdrawing from talks with the government. Muhammad's current whereabouts are not known, General Abbas said. As it began to enter Buner, the army was declaring victory in Lower Dir, having killed "70 to 75 militants" in a three-day operation that saw 10 soldiers killed. Amnesty International says the fighting has displaced over 30,000 people from Lower Dir.
The military operation in Buner looks set to stop the Taliban's expansion of control deeper into Pakistan's heartlands. But many observers have expressed a growing impatience with the government and the army's reluctance to recapture the Swat Valley. The May 2008 peace deal there appears to have given the Taliban the time to regroup and consolidate and to systematically eliminate the army's network of local assets. Deprived of its crucial intelligence-gathering operation, the army often had to resort to artillery fire, alienating the local population as the civilian death toll mounted. If, indeed, the military is planning to roll back the Taliban's advances of the past year, it will face a long, tough fight ahead. But it's not yet clear just how far back the generals and the political leaders are hoping to push the militants.