Pakistan weak as militancy surges

Government strategy has been ineffective, and officials are preoccupied with bid to oust Musharraf.

Anwarullah Khan/AP
Leaving: Residents fled Khar, the main town of Pakistan’s tribal region Bajur, Sunday. Some 219,000 have been displaced by recent fighting.

Mian Azif has stood praying by his older brother's hospital bed every night since the father of four was wounded by a suicide bomber who killed eight people and injured 30.

I don't know why this has happened," whispers Mr Azif. "I think the government's policies on the militants must be wrong or something."

His view is not uncommon. Pakistan's mounting insurgency, centered in the north-western tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, has been exacerbated by a weak, four-month-old coalition government that lacks an effective antimili-tant strategy.

Following the suicide bombing near a mosque in Lahore last Wednesday – just before the anniversary of Pakistan's independence – concern is growing that the insurgency is increasingly spilling into Pakistan's towns and cities. Lahore's blast occurred only days after 13 people were killed by a bus bombing in Peshawar, a frontier town near Afghanistan increasingly targeted by the Taliban and aligned militant groups.

Exacerbating the problem is the government's preoccupation with its attempt to boot President Pervez Musharraf from power.

Sunday, the coalition's leaders – Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N Party – finished drawing up the charges they will launch against the former Army chief if he refuses to step down. It was a rare moment of unity between the former bitter enemies.

"The government has been totally paralyzed and dysfunctional," says Talat Masoud, a defense and political analyst in Islamabad. He adds he expects the situation in the tribal areas to "get much worse."

Military campaign and broken deals

Since the United States and its allies went to war in Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas (FATA) – which fall outside Pakistan's federal laws under a system developed by the British – have become a haven for Al Qaeda and Afghan insurgents.

Militants in FATA have, in recent weeks, stepped up efforts to sabotage trucks carrying supplies destined for NATO troops in Afghanistan. They have also infiltrated the Swat Valley, a former tourist hot spot outside the tribal areas.

Alongside a military campaign against the militants, Pakistan's government has struck a number of deals with pro-Taliban warlords in the area. But its critics say such deals have served only to embolden the militants and allow them to regroup during cease-fires. Other deals have collapsed.

In 2006, a pact was made with the area's senior Taliban boss, Baitullah Mehsud, who is accused of murdering two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto last December. By the time the deal had collapsed, Mr. Mehsud was believed to have strengthened his position both in his South Waziristan base and further afield.

But Pakistan's Army spokesman, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, says that such deals should give the government and the Army enough stability to generate economic growth in the tribal areas – which could deter would-be militants more powerfully than force alone.

He adds, however, that Pakistan's Army is underresourced. In particular, he says, it is short of helicopters – "what we have is peanuts" – and communication systems.

"In some places, the militants have better communication systems than the Army," he charges.

Pakistan policy post-Musharraf

Meanwhile, there are questions about the direction Pakistan's role in the war on terror will take when Musharraf, who proved himself a stalwart ally of the US and its campaign against terrorism, has departed.

On Sunday, it remained unclear when exactly formal impeachment proceedings would begin against the president.

But Saturday, Foreign Minister Shah Qureshi gave the president a two-day deadline to head off the move by quitting.

When Musharraf does exit, many observers here expect Mr. Sharif's PML-N party, currently Pakistan's second largest, to emerge as Pakistan's biggest party, thanks to the support it will probably receive from members of Musharraf's PML-Q party. Musharraf formed the PML-Q out of the PML-N when he ousted Sharif in a military coup in 1999.

In an interview at his home near Lahore, Sharif said he was intent on quashing militancy in Pakistan.

But he suggested that in the future, he would seek to lower the profile of US involvement in Pakistan's fight against militancy. He is perhaps mindful of the fact that many Pakistanis blame the rising tide of violence in their country on the close alliance Musharraf formed with the US.

"We are not opposed to the Americans, and I know they have their own fears, but any policy that is devised to deal with these issues should not be perceived as an American issue," he says. "Without ownership of people, no strategy will work."

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