By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 1, 2008
NAWAGAI, Pakistan -- Parliamentary elections have come and gone in this village of mud-brick homes, but signs of unrest still abound. In the council hall, the walls have been stained by blood, evidence of a preelection bombing at a political rally. In the village cemetery, the graves of more than two dozen people killed in the blast appear freshly dug.
The target of the Feb. 8 bombing was a secular party, one of two that swept the elections several days later. Since then, the extremists believed to have been behind the attack have not struck again in Nawagai. But few villagers in this tightly knit community -- located in the heart of Pakistan's turbulent North-West Frontier Province -- believe they have seen the last of the violence.
"The economic situation here is what makes people violent. We have no water; we have no health clinics," said Syed Bajar Shah, a local farm owner who was caught in the bomb blast at the campaign rally for his brother, a secular candidate. "The government has done nothing for us. We want to put books and pens in our children's hands so they will not pick up weapons."
Last week, voters in this province -- dissatisfied with poor governance and a deteriorating security situation -- cast off five years of puritanical rule under a six-party religious alliance and handed a resounding victory to the two leading secular parties. The balloting marked a dramatic reversal from 2002, when religious candidates rocketed to power on a wave of discontent with Pakistan's participation in the U.S.-led fight against terrorism.
Now the secular parties have said they want to negotiate a political solution with religious extremists in a bid to improve security, which could prove either a boon or a bust for U.S.-backed efforts to pacify the region. But renewed attacks across Pakistan this week, as well as threats from extremists, signal tough times ahead for the newly ascendant secularists, especially for the Awami National Party, or ANP, which captured the largest number of votes in North-West Frontier Province.
"We respect the mandate of the ANP. But if the ANP is supporting the U.S. war, then we will attack them," Maulvi Omar, a top spokesman for the Taliban in Pakistan, said in a telephone interview. "If they start a war against us, then we will make this region a hell for them."
Within the past three weeks, more than 175 people have been killed in Pakistan in bombings, including the one in Nawagai. On Monday, a bomb attack in the central garrison city of Rawalpindi killed the country's surgeon general. The violence has fueled many Pakistanis' fears that bloodshed will continue, regardless of the change in political leadership here.
"There is no hope because all of these politicians have already been tested. We see signs of the same currents," said Musanif Kahn, a shopkeeper in Peshawar's Sadder Bazaar. "We need some quick changes and drastic steps from the government to bring better changes to our lives."
Top Pakistani political officials, former military leaders and analysts say there is little consensus on whether a political accord with the tribal groups involved in the attacks is achievable. There are long-simmering tensions between extremists and the secular parties -- ANP representatives, for instance, have been attacked several times -- and those tensions could undermine any deal.
"The ANP will bring a lot of tribal ethnic knowledge about who are the people who can be negotiated with and who are the people that should be left alone," said Husain Haqqani, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University. "But it is important to remember their history. There's no love lost between the ANP and the jihadis."
Nor is there a dearth of enmity between religious extremists and the other leading secular party, a faction of the Pakistan People's Party led by Aftab Khan Sherpao, a former interior minister. Last year, Sherpao twice survived bombings by extremists, who targeted him because of his role in ordering a deadly raid against a radical mosque in Islamabad.
Sherpao argues that the use of force against militants is necessary. But he said in an interview that his party is nonetheless interested in reaching a political accord with extremists that would bring allied religious parties into the political mainstream.
"My suggestion would be to take all the political parties on board -- the religious leaders, the civilian society, everyone. This issue has to be talked about apolitically without indulgences for political gain," Sherpao said.
"The public pressure is too high to do otherwise. In the tribal areas and local areas, the root causes have to be addressed. Lack of infrastructure and roads has to be addressed. Poverty has to be addressed," he said.
Several miles away from Sherpao's home, in the provincial capital of Peshawar, the mood in the busy offices of the ANP headquarters was downbeat, despite the party's recent victory.
Afrasiab Khattak, the ANP's provincial president, had barely missed being blown up in the bombing in Nawagai on Feb. 8. Khattak said the mandate given to secular parties in the northwest has little chance of success while President Pervez Musharraf remains in office.
"He has polarized our society, so the best thing . . . would be an exit strategy for him," Khattak said. "This polarization is helping only the extremists. They thrive in this kind of atmosphere."
Back in Nawagai, the farm owner who was caught in the bomb blast was back near the destroyed council hall on a recent day. Little more than dust stirred. Surrounded by a gaggle of young boys, Shah could barely bring himself to look at the devastated building.
"This is what we're left with," he said.
Special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.