Pakistani forces move against Taliban

The tenuous peace deal with the militants comes under increasing strain as Taliban take areas closer to Pakistan’s capital.

Naveed Ali/AP
A Pakistani police officer stands guard Sunday in Sehwari, a village of Pakistan's Buner district. Hundreds of people rallied for peace Sunday even as the Pakistan military responded to Taliban incursions.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

A Pakistani military launched an operation Sunday into an area covered by a peace accord with the Taliban. The offensive underscores rising tensions between the government and militants as the Taliban in the past week have moved closer to Pakistan's capital.

Pakistani forces engaged militants Sunday in the district of Lower Dir following a Taliban attack on a convoy carrying Frontier Corps paramilitary soldiers, according to the Pakistani military. One paramilitary and several militants were reported killed after fierce gun battles.

Farhatullah Babar, the spokesman for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, was quick to reassure the public that the peace-deal remains intact. But he also reiterated the government's desire "to root out the militants hell-bent on destroying the law and order situation."

Interior Ministry advisor Rehman Malik added to the stern language: "There is no option for them except to lay down their arms, because the government is serious now to flush them out."

Indeed, after almost a year of on-off negotiations with the Taliban of northwest Pakistan's Swat Valley, the government's patience appears to be running out.

Last week's capture by militants of Buner district, a key area merely 60 miles northwest of the capital of Islamabad, has allowed the government and its major coalition allies to find a "unity of purpose" against the Taliban according to lawmakers and analysts.

According to reports on Sunday, the Taliban maintains a strong presence there despite a promise to withdraw.

A concerted military push-back is expected within days should current talks with the Taliban fall through.

"[Till recently] there had not been an understanding as to the clear and present danger these militants pose to Pakistan," says Farah Ispahani, a spokesperson for Mr. Zardari and member of parliament for the ruling Pakistan People's Party. "Our opinion polls had taken a beating for speaking out."

Not just a frontier problem anymore

The political dynamic began to change two months ago when a series of attacks in Pakistan's most populous province of Punjab left lawmakers, civil society, and the media shaken.

"Events in Punjab like the cricket attack [in Lahore], the siege of Manawan police academy, and the suicide bombing of the police station in Chakwal [close to Islamabad] have awoken a lot of those members of the National Assembly from Punjab who before this viewed it as a problem of the Frontier," she says, in a veiled reference to the PML-N party of opposition leader of Nawaz Sharif who, with its power-base in Punjab, had previously been seen as attempting to appeal to religious constituencies by remaining ambivalent over the threat posed by the Taliban.

Now, however, Ms. Ispahani sees "a coherence between major institutions of the state as well as the media. They seem to be on the same page."

On Sunday, peace talks in Buner held between provincial lawmakers and local elders ended indecisively after Taliban members abstained from attending despite being invited, according to the Pakistani TV network, Geo.

In another display of increasing tension, interior ministry advisor Rehman Malik appeared on television to blame the Taliban for the killing of 11 children by a homemade bomb disguised as a toy in a village in Lower Dir on Sunday.

Taliban not fulfilling their end of the deal?

"What the Taliban did in Buner was against our agreement," laments Haji Adeel, vice president of the Awami National Party which governs the North West Frontier Province. Mr. Adeel complains that despite concessions to the Taliban, such as parliament's ratification of the use of Islamic law in the Malakand division (which includes Swat and Buner), their demands have only grown while they have refused to lay down arms.

"We're not in favor of a military response – first will be dialogue," Adeel says. "[Force] is there as a last resort."

That last resort may be drawing closer according to Ismail Khan, the Peshawar bureau chief of The Dawn, a leading English-language daily. "The next seven to 10 days will be a crucial phase, as the government will by then open the appellate sharia [Islamic] courts in Peshawar," which are a long-standing demand of the Swat Taliban. Once these courts are in place, any further violations of the agreement will be viewed very dimly, says Mr. Khan.

"It's clear that all parties are now running out of patience with Sufi Mohammad," Khan says, referring to the spiritual leader of the Swat Taliban. "He is fast burning the proverbial lamp oil."

Zardari heads to Washington

Come Monday, Pakistan's lawmakers will resume a special session ordered by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani on Friday to formulate a new national policy to counter terrorism. These recommendations will be then carried forward by Zardari in his trip to Washington next week where he is scheduled to participate in a tripartite conference with President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, says Ispahani.

The building consensus for a more robust approach to tackling militancy is a welcome development, says Rasul Bakhs Rais, a political analyst at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

"Two things have happened in the recent past," says Mr. Rais. "The posture of the PML-N seems to have become much clearer in support of antiterror policy. The other is from the Army, [which has] obtained the political consensus [it] desired."

Ahmed Rashid, analyst and author of "Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia" is less optimistic. The Army still lacks a decent counterinsurgency strategy, he says.

"In the past, they've gone in with massive firepower," says Mr. Rashid. "The operation is being demanded by the public and international community, but looked at very nervously by the local people. [It the past,] it's led to thousands of deaths and the displacement of hundreds of thousands."

Both analysts agree that past failures mean the United States faces political pressure to tie any economic aid to Pakistan to concrete results. Earlier this month, a group of wealthy nations pledged in Tokyo to givePakistan $5.28 billion over the next two years to help shore up itsslumping economy and fragile civilian government.But attaching conditions, such as handing over disgraced nuclear scientist Dr. AQ Khan, or telling the Pakistanis forcefully that military aid must not be used against India, may prove to be a bitter pill to swallow.

However, the time for action is now, says Rashid.

"It's clear this is now a multiethnic movement including all ethnic groups and militants who belong to these groups, whether in Punjab or in Karachi," he says. "They have different antecendents – many were formed to fight in Kashmir, but they now seem to be in broader alliance under leadership from Al Qaeda."

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