The Taliban scored the first major victory in the nascent battle of Buner today after its fighters captured 60 Frontier Constabulary and policemen.
Forty-three Frontier Constabulary officers and 17 policemen were captured after the Taliban surrounded their police station in the town of Pir Baba, the home of a shrine of a revered Sufi saint, Dawn reported. Among those captured was the police chief. The Taliban took control of the town after capturing the police station and the security officials.
About 250 officers from the Frontier Constabulary, a poorly armed and trained paramilitary police force, were turned back by the Taliban a few days ago after attempting to secure government installations. One officer was killed in the clash with the Taliban.
The Taliban have taken regular Army and paramilitary forces captive during numerous engagements over the past several years in Pakistan’s insurgency infested northwest. The Taliban often trades the captive security personnel for imprisoned Taliban fighters. But just as often the Taliban murders, mutilates, and beheads their prisoners in an effort to demoralize and frighten Pakistani security personnel.
Army preparing to deploy
The military launched the operation in Buner on April 28 after attacking the Taliban in the district of Dir over the weekend. The Taliban took military control of Buner with minimal opposition on April 12 after more than 500 fighters under the command of al Qaeda leader Ibn Amin entered the district just eight days prior. Buner is just 60 miles from Islamabad and borders the districts of Swabi and Haripur, which border Islamabad and Rawalpindi.
The military has dismissed claims that the Taliban are threatening the capital of Islamabad. "Distance is not the only component to measure the level of threat" to Islamabad, military spokesman Major General Anthar Abbas said to the media. "Counter-capacity has to be kept in mind." But the regional government in Islamabad deemed the threat great enough to deploy paramilitary Ranger units to the hills outside of Islamabad to prevent a potential Taliban advance.
The military claimed the Buner operation was kicked off after it intercepted a phone call between Swat Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah and his military commanders. Fazlullah reportedly told his commanders to deceive the government about withdrawing from Buner and ordered them to take control of the district.
Last week the Taliban claimed it pulled all of its forces, estimated at between 400 to 500 fighters, from Buner back to Swat. But the Taliban fighters never left Buner. The Taliban has been in full control of the district since April 12, despite government claims the Taliban controls only a small percentage of the district.
The Army is preparing to deploy two full brigades of regular troops to fight the Taliban in Buner, according to a report by Dilawar Jan, a correspondent for The News. Jan's report is unconfirmed, however it has struck a nerve with the Army, who has detained him and is demanding he reveal his sources. During past operations, the Army has shied away from deploying regular units out of fear of causing a rebellion within the ranks among the Taliban sympathizers.
The Army deployment is designed to "defeat the militants and secure control of the area to block their possible advances to other areas, particularly Hazara," according to Jan's report in The News. The Hazara Division is made up of the districts of Abbottabad, Battagram, Haripur, Kohistan and Mansehra, and hosts the Karakoram highway, a strategic road that links Pakistan to China. The Taliban have begun to move forces into Haripur and Mansehra.
The majority of the operations in Buner appear to be oriented to the south and west in regions where Buner borders the districts of Swat, Mardan, and Malakand. The Pakistani Army has relied on artillery and air strikes to target Taliban positions in Buner. The Taliban are said to have built bunkers and fortifications in some towns and in camps in the mountains.
Taliban dispute military claims in Dir
The military is claiming that the Dir operation, which began on April 26, has been a success and that the district is secure. The military claimed 70 Taliban fighters and a commander named Maulvi Shahid, and ten security personnel were killed during the fighting.
But a Taliban commander known as Hafeezullah claimed that Shahid wasn't killed in the attack and only four Taliban fighters have been killed in the fighting, Dawn reported. Hafeezullah claimed that Shahid would appear before the media. The Pakistani military often claims senior Taliban and al Qaeda leaders are killed during their operations, but the claims are almost always false.
Hafeezullah, who is thought to be an Afghan named Maulana Amir Khitab, is the Taliban commander in the district of Dir. His forces captured eight employees of the National Logistics Cell, while he threatened to attack the homes of local politicians if the military operation in Dir is not halted by April 29.
For more information on Buner and operations in the region, see:
• Pakistan launches operation against the Taliban in Buner
April 28, 2009
• Pakistan touts success of Dir operation
April 27, 2009
deployed to secure Islamabad outskirts
April 24, 2009
• Taliban advance eastward, threaten Islamabad
April 23, 2009
• Taliban flex muscles in Malakand Division
April 22, 2009
• Taliban moving on Mardan
April 17, 2009
• Taliban move on Buner despite promise to withdraw
April 10, 2009
• Taliban advance on Buner
April 7, 2009