ISLAMABAD – After weeks of consolidating their control over large areas of the Northwest Frontier Province, the Taliban are in retreat.
On Friday, Maulana Fazullah, the firebrand Taliban boss in the Swat Valley, ordered his most trusted military chief, Commander Fateh, to leave Buner, a neighboring valley that Fateh seized on Monday.
The Pakistani authorities warned the militants on Thursday that they were ready to remove them by force if they did not lay down their arms and abide by a peace agreement hammered out in February.
|Mohammad Sajjad / AP|
|Taliban militants hold their weapons outside a mosque in Daggar, Buner's main town on Thursday.|
According to the deal, the government ceded power to the Taliban in the Swat Valley and allowed them to impose Islamic law in the area in return for a cease-fire – ending two years of on and off military operations there.
But last weekend at a large gathering of supporters in the valley, the Taliban announced they would not lay down their arms and openly challenged the state. They declared that democracy was un-Islamic and called for harsh Islamic laws, known as sharia, to replace Pakistan's constitution.
The next day, they began their advance into Buner. That valley's proximity to the capital, Islamabad, just 70 miles and a five-hour drive away, sounded alarm bells in Washington.
A step too far
"The Taliban finally made a grave error," said Javed Siddiq, editor of the influential Urdu language daily Nawa-e-Waqt. "Once they challenged Pakistan's constitution as un-Islamic, Islamic scholars and the Pakistani people no longer saw them as the self-styled defenders of Islam against western infidels – but infidels themselves who want to dismantle the Pakistani state."
Siddiq said that challenging the constitution was a wrong step and believes it has backfired. Pakistan's constitution was carefully forged by a board of Islamic scholars in 1973 – every tenet was crafted to make sure it conformed to the principals of Islam.
"Now, all the different sects of the Sunni and Shiite, the religious scholars, the army, the politicians and every Pakistani is against the Taliban," Siddiq said. "They have lost."
The Taliban were quick to sense their blunder and the resulting sea change in the country. "The expansion into Buner was the turning point," said Siddiq.
|Taliban Commander Fateh in Buner, Pakistan.|
'No ordinary Taliban commander'
It was soon after the Taliban signed the February peace agreement with the Pakistani government that Commander Fateh began to plan the militants' move into Buner.
"I saw Swat as an opening for us," Fateh told NBC News in a recent interview. "I knew if I planned well, we would be able to advance little by little, hopefully in a peaceful way, and gradually enforce Islam in the valley."
Fateh, a 33-year-old native of Swat, rose up through the ranks of Taliban fighters after almost 15 years of fighting in Afghanistan. The somber-looking commander, who is married with three sons, is considered to be an accomplished military strategist, often brilliant in battle, according to Taliban commanders in the region.
With the bearing of a de-facto prince exacting homage from his subjects, Fateh, whose name means victorious in Urdu, rode into Buner last Monday in the back seat of a black Toyota pick-up truck. Taliban fighters flanked his vehicle and brandished Kalashnikovs at the throngs of locals who had come out to catch a glimpse of him.
Fateh was meticulously turned out in a silky black turban that hung low on his clean, pressed tunic. He wore expensive-looking light brown leather ankle boots, and his long black beard gave off a heady smell of musk-scented oil in the afternoon sun.
"This was no ordinary Taliban commander," said an NBC cameraman, who caught up with Fateh in Buner. "Most of them are scruffy. This guy was different. I wanted to ask him where he got his shoes."
|VIDEO: As concern grows over Taliban in Pakistan, Adm. Mike Mullen discusses the threat with NBC's Ann Curry|
Blazing a path of fear
Fateh's plan was to peacefully take Buner with 800 Taliban fighters. After consulting with Fazullah and a council of elders, Fateh and his men drove the 25 miles from Swat to Buner in a convoy of cars, pick-up trucks and mini-buses. Fateh ordered a few hundred men to walk over the mountains and prepare for meeting the Pakistani army along the way, but they encountered no resistance.
"I always try to take control without firing a single shot," Fateh said outside the villa of a wealthy Buner businessman that became his military headquarters just hours after arriving in Buner. "My orders to my men are first and foremost, try not to kill."
Fateh easily forced a truce with the tribal elders and sent home some of his men. He then gave NBC News a tour of the area to show that the local people were with the Taliban.
"We prefer the sharia law that the Taliban have brought to us because it provides speedy justice and no one demands money from us," said Sultan Mehmud, a shopkeeper in Buner.
"Before, we would have to go into debt hiring corrupt government lawyers to defend us, and we never received any justice," he said, albeit haltingly, obviously terrified to say anything against the Taliban.
The Taliban have consistently beheaded those who do not conform to their rules – which include outlawing music and forbidding men to shave their beards – and have torched schools and government buildings in their path.
Less than 1 million people live in Buner, an impoverished valley in the Malakand Division of the Northwest Frontier Province. But Buner has huge strategic importance because it borders seven other districts, enabling the Taliban to easily spread their influence.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen told NBC News in an interview broadcast on Friday that he is extremely concerned about indications that the Taliban are moving closer to Islamabad.
Pakistan's army commanders have repeatedly said that the army is ready to go back in to push back the militants – whose numbers in Swat alone are estimated to be close to 10,000. On Friday, they deployed around Buner to secure government installations, but so far they have not received any orders from the civilian government to launch a military operation.
In a strongly worded statement, Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, warned Friday that no one should mistake a pause in military operations as a concession to the militants.
"The army is determined to root out the menace of terrorism from the society," Kayani said in the statement. "It will not allow the militants to dictate terms to the government or impose their way of life on the civil society of Pakistan."
A Pakistani army officer, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said Kayani's statement was directed at the politicians who are criticizing the army and at Western voices who are describing a doomsday scenario for Pakistan. "The chief's statement was basically a 'shut-up' call," he said.
NBC News' Fakhar Rehman in Islamabad contributed to this report.