Urban Pakistanis split on militants

As violence intensifies once again in the tribal areas, polls reveal divisions among the middle class on whether a military response is the best answer to extremism.

The suicide bombing a few kilometers away from the Army's General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on Tuesday afternoon left at least seven dead and dozens wounded. It also reinforced fears that Pakistan's more rapidly modernizing major cities and towns may now feel the fight that the Pakistani Army has lately taken to the militants in its remote tribal areas.

Despite the increasing violence, many educated urban-dwellers – part of a growing middle class of moderate, educated Pakistanis – find themselves stuck in the middle of a war that they are still reluctant to embrace as their own. The public's lack of ownership for the conflict has led to an emerging dialogue here as to whether meeting the Taliban threat with conventional military attacks will do more to incite violence than to quell it.

There is also a growing perception among educated Pakistanis that it is America's failure in Afghanistan that has pushed Pakistan into the global war on terrorism and has emboldened extremes on both sides in the process.

A poll released Wednesday by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that less than half of urban Pakistanis favor sending the Pakistani Army to the Northwestern tribal areas to "pursue and capture Al-Qaeda fighters." Only 48 percent want the Pakistani Army to act against "Taliban insurgents who have crossed over from Afghanistan." [Editor's note: The above data was embargoed until early Wednesday morning.]

Yet even as a majority expresses disenchantment with the military's involvement in politics, many people still acknowledge that Pakistan depends upon that same Army to prevent retrograde religious militants from making deeper inroads into the country from their bases in the tribal territories and the more remote sections of the North West Frontier Province.

The bombing comes after intense battles in the Swat District in the Frontier Province this week, which has left more than 100 security personnel and militants dead. Once a thriving mountainous tourist town with some of the best skiing in the country, Swat and surrounding areas have, in recent weeks, become a bloody battleground.

An army of some 5,000 militants, led by Maulana Fazlullah, a local cleric notorious for his illegal radio channel on which he preaches jihad against the American-backed state, have also taken security officials hostage. Some were decapitated and their heads paraded through the streets. Pakistanis had heard of such gruesome violence in the far-flung, autonomous tribal regions, but never in "settled areas" like Swat, which are under state jurisdiction.

"People are viewing the Army's fight against terrorism as an extension of America's agenda in the region," says Khalid Rahman of the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad. "And the government also seems to be using this as a chance to secure its own place" at a time when its own popularity is plummeting.

Despite their apprehensions, many still say that historic negligence of the North West Frontier and tribal areas lies at the root of the problem.

"The people in these regions have never really developed faith in the system," says Asha Amirali, a political activist with the People's Rights Movement of Pakistan, an Islamabad-based social justice advocacy group. "They have lost faith in the politicians, and the judicial system at the grass roots is still impotent and disconnected from the rest of the country."

Even though Ms. Amirali, and many like her, fear what has been termed "talibanization," they also think the country is at a critical juncture, where it can be free from Army rule after eight years under President Pervez Musharraf.

The events in Swat have a haunting resonance to the confrontation in July between religious militants and security forces that resulted in the deaths of nearly 200 people at Islamabad's Red Mosque. But things were slightly different a few months ago. Then, prominent secular civil society leaders, academics, and activists had decried the militants' flaunting of the law and many in Pakistan had backed the state to take on the holdouts in the mosque compound. When the state finally did act, it left behind rumors of mass graves full of children and hostages.

"The way it was handled, it just created more hate and violence in the country," says Khurram Jamali, an investment fund manager in Karachi. Few felt much safer in the aftermath; major cities began witnessing their first suicide bombings. Mr. Fazlullah, the leader of the militant group in Swat, publicly decried the Army's operation then. Now, Mr. Jamali says, people might think twice before taking a stance. "At some level, I want the Army to act," he admits. "But I am also worried about where the battle will appear next if the violence continues."

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