Terror threat hitting home in Pakistan

Attacks aren't just a US concern, more Pakistanis say.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Losing sympathy: Relatives and officials offer flowers in Lahore, Pakistan, where a Jan. 11 suicide bombing killed 26 people. Such attacks are turning more Pakistanis against terrorism.
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When the Taliban first came to Abdul Malik's village in the idyllic Swat valley, he was not terribly concerned. Despite their machine guns and rocket launchers, "we were feeling secure," says the man, browsing in a hat shop in Peshawar, a town just miles from militant strongholds in northwestern tribal areas.

Then, they beheaded a half dozen local police and stuck their heads on swords. "Anyone who helps the government will meet the same fate," Mr. Malik recalls them saying.

"That was when people began to hate them," he says. "They are not Muslims. This is inhuman."

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Across Pakistan, the country's extremists are making enemies, and the desire to rein in terrorists – long seen as America's agenda – is gaining converts. Pakistanis have awaked to the threat of militancy since the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, allegedly by extremists, and a spate of recent suicide bombings in previously untroubled cities like Lahore.

"Al Qaeda is doing a good job of alienating the country against it," says Shafqat Mahmood, a columnist for the English-language daily The News.

It is the first faint echo of what has happened in parts of the Arab world, with many citizens becoming disgusted by terrorists when exposed to their tactics up close.

But there is a unique variable in Pakistan. Almost universally, Pakistanis see President Pervez Musharraf as the cause of the problem, holding his government responsible for the lack of security. Mr. Musharraf is seen by Pakistanis as playing a double game: allowing terrorism to fester so he can keep the West on his side, then acting when it gets out of control.

For instance, if the government could not control the after-effects of operations such as the Red Mosque, in which more than 100 people died when it tried to clear militants out of an Islamabad mosque last July, "it should have not launched it," says Tariq Butt, who sells government bonds on a Lahore street corner. The event has become a rallying point for militants.

As a result, the growing fear of terrorism has not brought significantly increased support for military operations in the tribal belt – operations strongly encouraged by America to rout entrenched terrorist forces. Instead, it has left Pakistanis ambivalent or even opposed to the war, which, they worry, is making the situation worse.

A January poll conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org found that about 30 percent of Pakistanis think that US-Pakistani cooperation on security and military issues has helped Pakistan.

"Earlier, there was unrest only in tribal areas because of Talibanization, but now it has surrounded the whole country," adds Mr. Butt. "The government has totally failed to control the militancy."

It is on this Lahore street corner that the spread of militancy has been most obvious. Lahore is the capital of Pakistan's most powerful province and is much nearer to India than the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Yet across the street on Jan. 10, a suicide bomber killed 26 Pakistanis in front of the Lahore High Court. It was the first such attack in Lahore in recent memory, perhaps ever.

In the aftermath, Lahorites say, there was an outpouring of sympathy for the police, with stories in the local media showing the barbarity of the bombings. This would not be surprising but for the fact that "the police is the most reviled institution in Pakistan," seen as thoroughly corrupt, says Shahid Kardar, a columnist for the Daily Times, an English-language newspaper based in Lahore. "There is a gradual realization" of the scope of the terrorist problem, he adds.

Yet this has not translated into a groundswell of support for a more robust "war on terror" largely because of a "failure of the political parties," says Mr. Kardar. "They have not been able to translate this for the ordinary people."

Only Ms. Bhutto had been willing to speak out against terrorism and make it central to her campaign. The national parliament has not held a debate about terrorism since Sept. 11, experts note. It is still seen as Musharraf's issue, pursued at the behest of his patron, the US.

In areas closer to the tribal belt, however – where the danger has existed for longer and is much more immediate – opinions are more unsettled. Residents of the frontier town of Peshawar, mere minutes from the tribal agencies where militants are based, have seen more suicide bombings than most other parts of the country have.

Rahm Sher, a local leader, says three CD shops in his village received threatening letters a few weeks ago from militants who said the shops sold un-Islamic music. Last week, militants attempted to seize a school in the area.

"I feel totally insecure," says Abdur Rashid, a bookseller in Peshawar. "Even one year back, when we would leave our homes, we were certain that we would come back. Now, I am afraid because the government has no control."

Yet overwhelmingly, Pakistanis would rather see the dispute along the border settled peacefully. "Instead of pounding them with bombs, security forces should arrest these people and take them to a court of law," says Mr. Rashid. "For capturing one person, the whole village should not be destroyed."

The WorldPublicOpinion.org poll found that, given three choices, only 23 percent of Pakistanis want the government to use military force to control the tribal areas; 46 percent prefer negotiations.

Farther down the bazaar road in Peshawar's old town, a copy machine whirs as Abdul Hamid, an Afghan refugee, contemplates how the town has changed. "I left Afghanistan, but now I am confronted with the same problems here," he says softly.

His friend, making a stream of copies for customers who flit in and out of the dark hallway, is also an Afghan refugee and returns to Afghanistan every few months. "The situation in Afghanistan is far better than it is in Pakistan these days," says Abdur Raziq. "The focus of terrorism has been converted to Pakistan."

Recent reports suggest that he might be correct. The head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, recently sacked the leader of the Taliban's Pakistan wing, Baitullah Mehsud, because he was focusing his efforts on Pakistan, not Afghanistan, according to the Asia Times Online.

In Peshawar, this has led some to believe that force is necessary. Amjad Iqbal sits in this shoe store and makes no concessions: "The Taliban is not Islamic in my mind. The government should fully crush them."

Rana Tanveer contributed to this report from Lahore; Ghulam Dastageer contributed from Peshawar.

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