Pakistan turns to force against militants

In a switch from its efforts to negotiate, the three-month-old government launched an offensive in the North West Frontier Province amid a growing threat to a major city.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Target: Pakistani militants wandered through the ruined headquarters of their leader, Meghal Bagh. Government forces bombed the site Sunday.
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Pakistan's paramilitary forces launched a decisive offensive against Islamic militants encircling the strategically important city of Peshawar over the weekend – an indication that the new government is turning to military action after focusing, until now, on negotiation.

Troops from the Frontier Corps bolstered by tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters cleared militants from the mountainous Khyber tribal area just outside Peshawar on Saturday in the first major military operation since Pakistan's new government came to power in March.

The offensive has highlighted the new government's struggle to find a clear strategy for dealing with militants. While it has never discounted a major military strike, it has focused on negotiating truces with militants, even while their spread has caused mounting alarm.

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Indeed, some observers have speculated that the government used the Frontier Corps to create the impression that this was a law-and-order exercise, rather than a military one.

The United States fears peace talks have given Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked militants more space to operate along the border with Afghanistan.

But analysts say that while the government has turned to military deployment, it will continue to pursue peace talks. "The strategy is the same, but the modus operandi has changed," says Ikram Sehgal, a defense analyst and editor of Pakistan's Defense Journal.

Gateway to the Khyber Pass

The threat to Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province, clearly warranted military action, say analysts. The city guards the approach to the Khyber Pass, an essential conduit for US and NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan. To lose this most strategic of cities to the militants would be a disaster for Pakistan's new government.

The offensive also came as US assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asian affairs, Richard Boucher, arrived in Pakistan for talks with the government.

"What do you do?" asks Khalid Aziz, a Peshawar-based analyst and chair of the Regional Institute of Policy Research and Training, a think tank. "Warlords are emerging like mushrooms all over the place; most of their money is generated by the bountiful Afghan poppy … it looks as if these people [the militants] are clearing the routes in the area."

Regarding the future of peace talks, he says: "We will have to pursue both courses and keep our eyes wide open. There's a growing realization among political groups here that the Taliban won't begin peace talks – but some members of their rank and file may be open to them."

Indeed, on Saturday, the Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud suspended negotiations with the government over its use of force in the tribal areas.

Dangerously close

In recent days, there have been reports that the Taliban and other militant groups were dangerously close to taking Peshawar, converging from north and south, even though Peshawar houses the main Army garrison for the entire northwest.

"The Taliban are no longer at the gates of Peshawar, they're inside, making their presence felt in the largest city in the NWFP (North West Frontier Province)," reported the Daily Times newspaper.

This may have been an overstatement, but Mr. Sehgal says that criminal elements were increasing operations under the cover of religious activities in Peshawar, "and the government can't just stand back and let that happen."

Pakistan's prime minister, Yousef Raza Gilani, said that tribal leaders had broken truces with vicious criminal activities: public hangings, kidnapping, and arson.

"No government can afford a parallel government, and we will never compromise the country's sovereignty, dignity, and self-respect," the Associated Press of Pakistan quoted him as saying.

On June 21, a convoy of armed militants drove into Peshawar and kidnapped 16 men from the city's tiny Christian community. The men were later freed.

Some observers say action on such criminals was long overdue.

The weekend's offensive targeted the Lashkar-e-Islam, or Army of Islam, a movement that was reported to have taken over huge swathes of the Khyber Pass. Forces bombed the house of its leader, Mangal Bagh, in the town of Bara, about 28 miles southeast of Khyber's main town, Landikotal, on Saturday. Mr. Bagh had left home for the remote Tirah valley before the attack.

Though he propounds a hard-line form of Islam, and in recent days had sent his men into Peshawar to threaten music and DVD shop owners, Bagh is understood to have little contact with Pakistan's Taliban.

He is, however, thought to have links with the Vice and Virtue Movement, a militant faction that is believed to have sent forces into Afghanistan to fight coalition soldiers.

On Monday, an explosion destroyed the house of a Vice and Virtue Movement's leader, killing six people, although a military official claimed the blast occurred when explosives stored at the house went off by accident.

Watching cities

Meanwhile, given the threat of militant reprisals, security has been stepped up in Pakistan's major cities, including Islamabad, where an unexplained blast caused panic on Monday morning.

Reuters reported that Mr. Mehsud predicted, in a telephone conversation, that the offensive in Khyber would be followed by further operations against militant groups in other parts of Pakistan's northwest – and he threatened retaliation.

"I am warning that the fire will not only burn in tribal areas and Frontier Province, it will engulf Punjab and Sindh also," Reuters quoted Mehsud as saying.

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