Pakistan in quandary over how to deal with rising militant threats

There appears to be little consensus over meeting multifaceted challenges that are driven by varying agendas.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

After one of the bloodiest weeks in Pakistan since the new government took office in February, the country's role in the war on terror has come under scrutiny at home and abroad.

A suicide bomb that ripped the heart of the capital earlier in the week was followed by serial bombings in the country's largest city Karachi. Those occurred on the same day that the Indian Consulate was attacked by a suicide bomber in Kabul.

As the militancy growing out from Pakistan's tribal region trickles across the border into Afghanistan and also hits back home in major cities, military strategists and the new government are hard pressed to find easy answers on how to address it.

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"It is not a question anymore of whether we'd like to help the Americans or not," say Ikram Sehgal, a retired Army officer who now publishes the Defence Journal in Karachi. Pakistanis, in and outside of the tribal belt, are feeling the heat from the many battles being fought in the country, and "it's obvious now that the war is our war also," he says.

"How do we conduct the war?" he asks. "Now there is a difference of opinion there."

The bombings came in the week after Pakistani paramilitary forces launched an aggressive offensive in the tribal areas as some militant groups, identifying themselves with the umbrella Taliban Movement of Pakistan, seemed poised to enter Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. The offensive was seen as a sudden change in tack by a government that had favored negotiations with some militant outfits.

"What we have is a government in which there is still no consensus" on how to deal with the militants, says Ansar Abbasi, an editor with The News, a national English daily. "The new government couldn't possibly have followed [President Pervez] Musharraf's game plan," he says, so it is now simultaneously offering the olive branch and wielding the stick.

On Wednesday, local government officials signed an accord, brokered through tribal leaders, with the Army of Islam, a militant group that identifies with the Taliban in Pakistan. Local media reported that, through the deal, the Army of Islam would give up control of a hotly contested town in the tribal areas in exchange for the release of prisoners. The group would be liable to pay 30 million rupees (approximately $450,000) and 25 AK-47 rifles to the government, if they violate the agreement.

In sharp contrast to this detailed settlement, an Army unit was deployed in a different part of the tribal belt on the same day after a group of 400 militants, also identified as Taliban, took over a local police station after Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani vowed "to fight terrorism and extremism with [an] iron fist."

"The problem in Swat is different than the problem in Peshawar, which is different than the problem in Waziristan," says Mr. Sehgal, referring to three of the hot spots along the north and northwestern regions of the country. Sehgal, who had served in the tribal areas as part of the Pakistan Army, says militancy and terrorism pose different problems: Some militants might battle armed forces in the tribal areas, but they would not necessarily plant car bombs in marketplaces in cities. "While they all probably agree that they don't want American forces around, it doesn't mean they can't be dealt with in different ways," he says.

But the government, says Talat Masood, a security analyst and a retired lieutenant general in the Pakistan Army, "is shying away from making any hard decisions." The Army, he says, is not being given clear instructions or a mandate from the government, which seems to lack direction in the face of a multifaceted challenge.

"There seems to be no coordination between the different security agencies, and they will not succeed out there without a coordinated effort," he says.

Pakistan's dilemma also deepens as the Taliban gain strength in Afghanistan. In Pakistan's security establishment, "there might still be some elements who think that not every Taliban is a bad Taliban," says Mr. Masood. The Taliban, in conventional Pakistani military strategic planning, had been considered an asset in Afghanistan, as India had supported the Northern Alliance, which opposed the Taliban when they controlled the country, and who helped bring the current government to power. But now that the Taliban seem to have turned their crosshairs on Pakistan, analysts say, this notion is losing currency.

"It may be time to look at the situation in Pakistan through a lens of Northern Ireland, and not just the war on terror," says Mr. Abbasi, the editor. Pakistan, he says, is fighting a unique fight through a difficult period in the war on terror. "A lot of these problems are home-grown," he says, "but so far we haven't come up with any good home-grown solutions – and that's the only way to win this for us."

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