Attack Brings Military Focus Home

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Dec. 30 -- With Pakistan and its army distracted by revived hostilities with neighboring India, a brazen suicide bomb attack Sunday by Islamist radicals in a northwestern village served as a jolting reminder that Pakistan still faces a real war at home, from an enemy that increasingly threatens to destabilize the Muslim nation of more than 170 million.

Even as Pakistani troops launched an operation Monday to re-secure the main supply route for U.S. military forces in next-door Afghanistan and army officials here called for an easing of tensions with India, other Pakistani troops were being redeployed toward India from the northwestern frontier, where Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are widening a campaign of intimidation, religious repression and killing.

On the edge of the scenic Swat Valley on Sunday, suicide bombers killed as many as 40 people in the village of Buner, whose leaders had taken a rare public stand against Taliban predations. Islamist fighters are now reported to control most of the valley, and their leaders have threatened to start bombing all girls' schools there Jan. 15. In the northwestern provincial capital of Peshawar, officials have been assassinated and U.S. military vehicle depots blown to bits.

Yet public opinion and military priorities in Pakistan appear to be focused more on the potential threat from India, a Hindu-majority, nuclear-armed state that has fought three wars with its rival, Pakistan, also a nuclear power. Mutual suspicion and hatred have resurfaced since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai last month, which left more than 170 people dead and have been linked to Islamist groups based in Pakistan.

Many Pakistanis still view India as their real enemy and are far less concerned about the spread of radical Islam in their midst, while the country's powerful army appears to be more comfortable facing its conventional cross-border adversary to the east than waging a messy counterinsurgency campaign against fellow Muslims and Pakistanis on its own territory.

"The Taliban have brought their war to the very gates of Peshawar, but there is no political will to take them on," said Afrasiab Khattak, a secular party leader and human rights activist in the northwest. "The tensions with India have shaken our democratic government and not allowed it to focus on the threat of militancy. This has overshadowed everything else."

Furthermore, although Pakistani officials have denounced Islamist terrorism and vowed to quash it, especially since the terrorist bombing of a luxury Marriott hotel in the capital in September, the view remains widespread in Pakistan that the war on terror is America's war and that Pakistani forces are merely being used to fight it.

Pakistan's former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, was forced from power last year largely because of public unhappiness about his close alliance with the Bush administration and the Afghanistan-based war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda that it launched after Sept. 11, 2001.

President Asif Ali Zardari, who took office in September after the assassination in 2007 of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has been harshly criticized at home as a stooge for American interests, in part for acquiescing to U.S. drone attacks on insurgent hideouts inside Pakistan, and more recently for failing to strongly defend Pakistan against Indian accusations that it was connected to the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

"The government is under a lot of pressure, and there are people who say the army has just been rented out to do America's bidding. That may have been true in the past, but today we are the major victims of instability caused by terrorism," said Mushfiq Murshed, the editor of a scholarly journal here. "More than 4,000 people have been killed in Pakistan in the last year alone. If this isn't our war, I don't know what is," he said.

Army officials have said they are firmly committed to the war against violent Islamist groups, and in recent months, the army has launched a series of ground operations against them across the northwest. But those actions have aroused deep public resentment and sent thousands of refugees fleeing from their villages, while failing to halt the insurgents' spreading reign of terror.

In contrast to this unpopular and faltering military effort, the recent spike in tensions with India has offered what some analysts call an opportunity for Pakistan's army to return to its historic mission and recover some luster. Though most Pakistanis say they do not want to go to war with India, many say their neighbor needs to be kept in check.

Even if the recent shift of troops away from the Afghan border and toward India proves largely a symbolic gesture, however, some analysts here say they worry a thinning of military ranks in the northwest could give Islamist forces a chance to become more entrenched in the conservative, impoverished region less than 100 miles from the capital. At the same time, they warn, the Zardari government and its backers in Washington must provide economic aid and better governance, as well as military punishment for insurgents, if they hope to enlist the people in the fight against militancy.

"We cannot afford to lose our focus on the war against terror, but you can't just send in troops. You need to feed people and give them a reason to join you," Murshed said. Even if many Pakistanis are reluctant to confront fellow Muslims and tend to blame the United States for starting all the trouble, he said, "these are criminals, and we are the ones who have to stop them."

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