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New Concerns Over Gains by Taliban in Pakistan

U.S. officials and South Asian analysts are expressing concern over military and political gains being made by the Taliban in Pakistan. They say a recent agreement between the militants and the government in Islamabad is a dangerous policy of appeasement that could undermine efforts to fight terrorism and threaten the nation's stability.

Analysts say the decision by the Pakistani parliament and President Asif Ali Zardari to allow Sharia, or Islamic law, in parts of the nation's northwest appears to have backfired.

Instead of bringing peace to a region where hundreds have died in fighting between the Taliban and the Pakistani military, the agreement seems to have emboldened the militants who have not put down their weapons.

Taliban fighters are now spreading their control over larger parts of the North-West Frontier Province, moving closer to the capital, Islamabad.

Speaking recently before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used unusually blunt language, accusing the Pakistani government of "abdicating" to the Taliban and other extremists.

"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, which is, as we all know, a nuclear armed state," she said.

The Taliban has now entered Buner district - only about 100 kilometers from Islamabad.

The assault came shortly after the Pakistani government signed a peace agreement with the militants, establishing Islamic law in the nearby Swat Valley and other areas of the northwest.

In announcing his administration's policies on Afghanistan and Pakistan last month, U.S. President Barack Obama left no doubt about how he views the extremist threat to Pakistan.

"They have killed many Pakistani soldiers and police. They assassinated Benazir Bhutto. They have blown up buildings, derailed foreign investment and threatened the stability of the state. So make no mistake, al-Qaida and its extremist allies are a cancer that risks killing Pakistan from within," he said.

Lisa Curtis, a South Asian specialist at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, says the government in Islamabad is making a mistake by negotiating with the Taliban.

"The government is continuing to pursue a policy of appeasement rather than direct confrontation of these extremists. And I think this is very dangerous for the country," warned Curtis.

Curtis added that the recent political and military gains made by the Taliban, and their desire to spread militant Islam into the country's heartland raise questions about Pakistan's stability.

"What we are seeing in the North-West Frontier Province - the spread of a very well armed, well prepared, well organized Islamist insurgency - is new for Pakistan. It is something that is starting to consume the country. There are a lot of questions about whether there is the potential for an Islamic revolution in Pakistan in the next six months," added Curtis.

Members of the U.S. Congress are also expressing their concern.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, in a recent address to the Council on Foreign Relations, said Islamabad's effort to use diplomacy to deal with the Taliban is against the best interests of Pakistan and the United States.

"Now we have a large region, [the] Swat [Valley], essentially being taken over by more extremist forces," he said. "I worry about the accommodation going on to this element. I do not think in the long run it works for the current leadership of Pakistan, our allies, nor does it work for the people of Pakistan. And it certainly does not work for us."

Senator Lieberman says Pakistanis must understand their major enemy in the region is no longer India.

He says Islamist extremism is the main threat to Pakistan.