The Taliban have returned to a northwestern Pakistani region where thousands were killed and millions displaced as Islamabad claimed to end years of insurgent control in a major military offensive a decade ago.
Security officials, lawmakers, and locals agree that the notorious Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or movement of the Pakistani Taliban, have returned to the mountainous district of Buner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
But they disagree over the threat posed by the insurgents or how successful they are in trying to assert influence by tormenting locals and challenging the government’s authority.
“We are engaged in search and strike offensives day and night but have so far not succeeded in arresting them,” Buner’s top police official, Muhammad Irshad, told Radio Mashaal.
He says the military and the police are engaged in a joint offensive against the militants, but the region’s mountainous geography favors the insurgents.
“We are concentrated on Elam Mountain, which is a 46-square-kilometer area with thick forests,” he said this week. “Now that the maize crop is ripe [the insurgents have more places to hide]. But our efforts have been going on for a week.”
But many locals have seen the Taliban. They say the insurgents are bent on establishing control.
Bakht Afsar, a resident of Buner’s Sultan Wass village, says the insurgents roam freely and have even established check posts in some regions.
“What we are witnessing here from the past two months tells us that the government, state, and law are absent,” he told Radio Mashaal. “They [the Taliban] patrol villages. They have established check posts on the main roads, they check IDs of locals and search their vehicles. They are even seen during the daytime.”
The return of the TTP first came to light earlier this month when a lawmaker publicized a purported threatening letter he had received from the militants. Sardar Hussain Babak, a leader of the secular Awami National Party (ANP), represents a Buner constituency in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s provincial assembly.
He told Radio Mashaal that a handwritten letter he received on August 13 included threats.
“The letter demanded we pay them to help them in their activities,” he said. “They warned us that if we failed to comply, they would unleash their suicide bombers and assassins.”
In 2009, an ANP-led provincial civilian administration ruled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as the military conducted a large-scale operation to cleanse Buner and the neighboring districts of Swat, Shangla, Dir, and Malakand, which are all part of the larger region called Malakand Division. Operation Rah-e Rast, as the offensive was officially dubbed, displaced more than 3 million predominately Pashtun residents of Buner and Swat.
Thousands of civilians died in militant attacks and military offensives after the emergence of the Taliban in Swat in 2006. The local Taliban group joined the TTP in 2007, which was an umbrella alliance of Taliban factions across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Their local leader, Maulana Fazlullah, had a long history of violence and used his fiery sermons to win support for his radical ideology.
The resurfacing of the Taliban in Buner has raised local fears over a possible comeback of past horrors. But in a purported statement on August 17, the TTP rejected tormenting locals by asking for extortion payments.
Lawmaker Riaz Khan, a leader of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf political party, also represents Buner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s assembly. He told Radio Mashaal that their administration is doing all it can to counter the emergence of the Taliban.
“The government is doing everything in its power to end terrorism, but it does not have Aladdin’s magic lamp to change things overnight,” he said.