WASHINGTON (AFP) – Taliban advances in Pakistan pose “an existential threat” to the country, US officials have warned as President Barack Obama prepared to hold talks in May with Afghan and Pakistani leaders.
“We cannot underscore (enough) the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by the 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,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told US lawmakers on Wednesday.
She urged Islamabad and the Pakistani people “to speak out forcefully against a policy that is ceding more and more territory to the insurgents, to the Taliban, to Al-Qaeda, to the allies that are in this terrorist syndicate.”
Pakistani officials said Wednesday that Taliban militants in Pakistan’s Swat valley have moved into another district, just 110 kilometres (68 miles) from the capital Islamabad, in a bid to broaden their control.
Hundreds of armed fighters have set up checkpoints and occupied mosques in Buner district north-west of Islamabad.
The militants entered Buner, from the Swat valley, where Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has signed a deal allowing Islamic sharia courts in a bid to end deadly extremist violence.
“Taliban are patrolling the streets in Buner,” local police official Rasheed Khan told AFP.
He said local government officials were in talks with the Taliban to put an end to the militant occupation.
“We hope that they will stop patrolling soon,” he said.
With US concern about stability in the region mounting, a senior US official confirmed Obama will host talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Zardari in early May.
Obama will meet with the two leaders separately and then the three will take part in a summit May 6 and 7, the Washington Post reported. The official declined to confirm those details.
The new US leader has put nuclear-armed Pakistan, a key regional US ally, at the center of the fight against Al-Qaeda as the US dispatches 4,000 more troops, in addition to an extra 17,000 already committed, to Afghanistan.
The plan, unveiled in March, includes a focus on flushing out Al-Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan and boosting civilian efforts to build up both Afghanistan and Pakistan, notably in agriculture and education.
Amid a flurry of concern about the unrest, the top US military commander, Admiral Michael Mullen, arrived in Islamabad from Kabul for meetings with Pakistani officials, a US embassy official in Islamabad said.
Mullen met army chief General Ashfaq Kayani in the garrison town of Rawalpindi, neighbouring Islamabad, after his arrival.
The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff warned earlier Wednesday on a short, unannounced visit to Kabul that Americans cannot expect a swift victory against the insurgency despite the imminent deployment of extra troops.
“There are limits on how many troops we can provide to make a difference,” he told ABC television.
“These 21,000 troops are absolutely vital. We don’t have, we haven’t had enough troops in Afghanistan to, once we are in an area, to clear it. We haven’t had enough troops to hold it. And these troops will allow us to do that.”
The Pakistani central government lost control in Swat, a former ski resort and jewel in the crown of Pakistani tourism, after a violent two-year militant campaign to enforce strict sharia law.
Zardari agreed to allow sharia courts in Malakand, a district of some three million people in North West Frontier Province that includes the Swat valley, in order to halt the violence.
But the Islamists have continued to try to consolidate their position, and the commander of the international forces, Major General Michael Tucker, said ISAF troops “do monitor enemy operations in Pakistan.”
Asked about the Taliban’s bid to expand their control beyond Swat, he said in a Pentagon teleconference from Afghanistan: “It is on our radar, we are concerned about that.
“We are in close coordination with the Pakistani army. We have a great deal of joint operations, sharing intelligence with the Pakistanis, conducting joint operations with them along with the Afghan border police and the Afghan army.”
Pakistan has been rocked by a series of unprecedented Islamist attacks which have left some 1,800 people dead in the past 18 months, raising US concerns about whether the Pakistani government can withstand such pressure.
Mullen told NBC news he was concerned about the prospect of both Afghanistan and Pakistan descending into chaos.
“Pakistan — it’s a country that has nuclear weapons. My long-term worry is that descent … should it continue, gives us the worst possible outcome there,” he said.
But the Pakistani authorities rejected suggestions it need outside military help to combat the insurgent threat.
“Pakistan… has one of the largest armies in the world,” the country’s ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani, told CNN. “The military is capable of dealing with the insurgency.”