Pakistanis Confront Bonds of Faith, Country in Battle With Taliban

After the Taliban broke a peace deal with Pakistan's government, the country's army has been fighting to dispel the militants from its Swat Valley region since April. Armed forces have been able to reclaim a number of key towns in the region, but the human toll of the action is being felt by the family members of those in battle.
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 12, 2009

PATALIAN, Pakistan -- The body of Mohammed Sajad lies buried in the sandy soil of the village cemetery, beneath a lonely Pakistani flag that flies crisply in the sweltering air.

He died, his father explains, a soldier's death, shot in the back after his Pakistani army unit marched into a trap in the Swat Valley. Recovering the body took four days because of the ferocity of Taliban sniper fire. It will take Sajad's father far longer to understand why Pakistan is waging war with its own people.

"We used to know who the enemy was, and where he is coming from," said Zulfikar Sajad, his eyes vacant and sad as he sat in a mud-brick hut on a desolate plain. "Now, we don't know from which direction the bullets will come."

Unlike in past wars against its archenemy, India, Pakistan is engulfed in a conflict that pits Pakistanis against Pakistanis, Muslims against Muslims. It is a confrontation the army long resisted, and it features an enemy that many Pakistanis would prefer to believe does not exist. For the soldiers who fight, and for the growing number of families forced to bury their sons, the struggle seems to go against their very DNA.

Yet overcoming that deep unease will be critical to Pakistani efforts to win what U.S. officials identify as the central front in the war against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other violent Islamist groups.

The conflict in Pakistan is as much about public perception as it is about events on the battlefield, and in recent weeks there have been signs that opinions are shifting. Buoyed by apparent army victories in Swat, and repulsed by extreme Taliban tactics such as beheadings and suicide bombings that target civilians, Pakistanis have rallied around the military as it wages a battle that many here view as a struggle for the nation's soul. What was once seen as a U.S. fight is now being claimed as Pakistan's.

"There has been a palpable change in the public perception of the Taliban," said Rifaat Hussain, professor of defense and strategic studies at Qaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "When the savagery of their rule was exposed, people began to think, 'This is not the kind of Islam that we want in Pakistan.' "

At the same time, Hussain said, the military has navigated its own shift. As recently as six months ago, he said, the Taliban was still seen as "Pakistan's second line of defense against India. Now they're being seen as a very serious threat."

That is welcome news for the Obama administration, which was gravely concerned this spring that the Pakistani government was unwilling or unable to combat a surging Taliban force that was then knocking on the door of the capital. U.S. anxiety has eased somewhat as the momentum has swung back toward the army and the government.

But it remains to be seen whether Pakistan's new attitude will endure through what is sure to be a years-long fight against an enemy its military once nurtured, with U.S. assistance.

"These people were certified as God's holy warriors by the White House itself. Now they've been transformed into the world's darkest villains. That's complicated," said Ayaz Amir, a member of Parliament and a newspaper columnist and army veteran. "But the opinion that Pakistan has no choice other than to fight these people is becoming stronger."

No one believes the fight will be easy. Although the army has made progress in its offensive in Swat, vast swaths of Pakistan's northwest remain locked in the Taliban's grip.

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