As the Taliban tightened their hold over newly won territory, Pakistani politicians and U.S. officials on Thursday sharply questioned the government’s willingness to deal with the insurgents and the Pakistani military decision to remain on the sidelines.
Some 400 to 500 insurgents consolidated control of their new prize, a strategic district called Buner, just 70 miles from the capital, Islamabad, setting up check points and negotiating a truce similar to the one that allowed the Taliban to impose Islamic law in the neighboring Swat Valley.
As they did, Taliban contingents were seen Thursday in at least two other districts and areas closer to the capital, according to Pakistani government officials and residents.
Yet Pakistani authorities deployed just several hundred poorly paid and equipped constabulary forces to Buner, who were repelled in a clash with the insurgents, leaving one police officer dead.
The limited response set off fresh scrutiny of Pakistan’s military, a force with 500,000 soldiers and a similar number of reservists. The army receives $1 billion in U.S. military aid each year but has repeatedly declined to confront the Taliban-led insurgency, even as it has bled out of Pakistan’s self-governed tribal areas into Pakistan proper in recent months.
Pakistan’s military remains fixated on training and deploying its soldiers to fight the country’s archenemy, India. Pakistan’s military remains ill-equipped for counterinsurgency, analysts say, and top officers are deeply reluctant to be pressed into action against insurgents who enjoy family, ethnic and religious ties with many Pakistanis.
In the limited engagements in which regular army troops have fought the Taliban in the tribal areas and sections of the Swat Valley, they not only failed to dislodge the Taliban, but also persuaded many Pakistanis that their own military is as much of a menace as the Islamic radicals it sought to repel, residents and analysts say.
In Washington, a Defense Department official who is monitoring Pakistan closely, said that the poorly trained constabulary force was dispatched on Thursday because regular Pakistani army troops were not available, and Pakistani generals were reluctant to pull reinforcements off the border with India — something U.S. officials encouraged them to do.