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Pakistan still conflicted over battling Taliban

Associated Press

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's offensive to push Taliban militants from a district near the capital drew little criticism from local politicians and clerics — a sign that insurgents may have gone too far in trying to expand their reign in the region.

But despite that tacit acceptance, the nuclear-armed country remains far from consensus on the seriousness of the extremist threat it faces — and how best to fight it.

The army said today that it has retaken the main town in Buner, a district 100 kilometres from Islamabad, which Taliban fighters overwhelmed this month in the wake of a peace deal that established Islamic law in the Swat Valley. The military said more than 50 Taliban fighters and one member of the security forces died in the offensive launched Tuesday amid U.S. pressure.

Elsewhere in Pakistan today, at least 20 people were killed and two dozen vehicles torched in ethnic violence in the southern city of Karachi, officials said.

The insurgents' advance into Buner had heightened concern in Pakistan about the militants' growing reach, once largely limited to the remote, semiautonomous tribal belt. Even some pro-Taliban religious party leaders criticized recent statements by militants and their sympathizers that democracy and elections are un-Islamic.

Whether that will translate into sustained action is another matter.

Anti-Americanism is widespread in Pakistan, a mood exacerbated by U.S. missile strikes in northwest regions bordering Afghanistan. One suspected American strike killed five alleged militants Wednesday in the South Waziristan tribal region, intelligence officials said. The U.S. has launched some three dozen such strikes since August.

Public support for fellow Muslims and a lack of agreement about what Taliban rule would mean also make it difficult for the U.S.-allied government in Islamabad to rally public support against the insurgents.

“All the destabilization and anarchy in the region is because of the Americans' aggressive and violent policies,” said Nadir Khan, a 41-year-old merchant in Karachi. “The solution is that Americans should quit Afghanistan immediately. Extremist forces would themselves die down ultimately.”

But militant activity has seemed like the norm in recent years in Pakistan.

In March, two audacious attacks occurred in the eastern city of Lahore in Punjab province, Pakistan's most populous, one on a visiting Sri Lankan cricket team, the other on police academy in the eastern city of Lahore.

In September last year, militants bombed the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, killing 54 people and further shocking the country — some labeled it Pakistan's 9/11.

In 2007, radical students affiliated with Islamabad's Red Mosque sowed fear in the capital by agitating for a strict form of Islamic law. A military siege of the mosque in July of that year left just over 100 dead, according to the government.

In December 2007, a gun and suicide bomb attack killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a secular politician who returned from exile to campaign in elections ushering in civilian rule after years of military government.

Such violence — coming amid a slew of other suicide attacks in the country — did not deter Pakistan from trying peace deals with militant groups, annoying U.S. officials who say the pacts strengthen the insurgents.

Under the Swat agreement, Islamic law was imposed there and in surrounding districts, including Buner. The idea of Islamic law, which under the Taliban's sway would likely be harsh, prompted exceptional soul-searching in Pakistan, with critics calling the deal a “surrender.”

But the perception that Pakistanis are needlessly dying in a war for America is so widespread that many people would rather stay silent about the Taliban than appear to back the United States, said Mohammed Hanif, an author and commentator.

At a rally in Lahore on Tuesday, a few hundred participants spoke out against the Taliban, but their signs also condemned the American missile strikes. On the same day, a hard-line religious party's supporters staged a pro-Taliban rally in the northwest city of Peshawar.

Political analyst Mehdi Hasan said most Pakistanis do not back the Taliban's approach to religion, but “the problem is that the overwhelming majority is the silent majority.”

He said the Pakistani media often glorified the militants, and that the commentary might leave many with the impression that the Taliban are to be respected instead of feared.

Pakistan's weak federal government believes dialogue with militants is a necessary part of tackling the problem — and even the U.S. is warming to the idea of talks with the Taliban — but it has never ruled out force.

In a statement today, President Asif Ali Zardari, Ms. Bhutto's widower who now runs her party, urged the nation of 170 million to “give pause to their political differences and rise to the occasion” in support of the offensive in Buner and another military operation in the Dir region.

Analyst Ikram Sehgal said ultimately the government will have to vanquish the militants entrenched in the Swat Valley, not just smaller areas around it.

He said a confrontation with the Swat Taliban could provide an even larger turning point in public attitudes, especially after Sufi Muhammad, a hardline cleric mediating the peace deal, gave a speech denouncing democracy and elections as un-Islamic. Observers noted that some religious party leaders had made critical statements about the Taliban after that speech.

“We should give Sufi Muhammad a medal for that,” Mr. Sehgal said. “He woke up the people to a reality.”

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