Blast kills 20 in NW Pakistan

Map: Deadly car bomb near Charsadda, Pakistan
By Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN-- A suicide bomber rammed his car into a donkey cart in the northwest town of Charsadda on Tuesday, killing more than 20 people and wounding 45, officials said. It was the third suicide bombing since Saturday in the volatile border region, where army troops have battled Taliban forces for a month.

The three blasts in North-West Frontier Province have killed at least 40 people in four days, including a mayor who once backed the Taliban but later led a militia against it. He died Sunday when a suicide bomber set off a blast in a livestock market, where people were buying goats to sacrifice for the upcoming Eid holiday.

The latest bombings, all carried out against nonmilitary targets, highlight the human cost of Pakistan's decision to launch a major army offensive against one of the Taliban's main tribal strongholds. The violence increasingly has spilled into heavily populated areas nearby.

Army officials say the operation in the South Waziristan tribal area is going well and has strong support among the Pakistani public. But analysts said the militants' aggressive moves beyond tribal borders -- especially against local officials who defy them -- is opening a deadly new front in a war that could still lose crucial public support.

Moreover, regional leaders and analysts said they are worried that the central government, by failing to follow up a series of army operations with rehabilitation aid and economic development, is opening the door for Taliban forces to return and regain influence over an impoverished, long-neglected tribal populace that has little loyalty to the state.

"It is not just a question of clearing out the militants," said Aftab Khan Sherpao, a national legislator and former cabinet minister whose home is Charsadda. "The whole fabric of society has collapsed in this region, and it will take years to revive. Even if you weed out these people, the job has just started."

Sherpao and other regional politicians complained this week that they had seen little evidence of government rebuilding after earlier army operations that drove Taliban forces out of the Swat Valley and the Bajaur region, two areas that border the tribal belt. They said no officials had come to survey the homes and shops demolished in the fighting, let alone compensate the owners as promised.

"The army did its job. Now it's time to reestablish the writ of the civil government," Sherpao said, noting that the Taliban had appealed to landless tenant farmers and exploited their grievances against landlords. If the authorities do not act to win them over, he said, "we may go into a second phase of the conflict."

The government has set aside about $200 million to rebuild the tribal areas, but regional leaders said that it is far too little and that more help is needed from international donors. One legislator from Bajaur, who uses the single name Shaukatullah, said the most urgent need in his area was jobs for unskilled young men who could be recruited by the Taliban. "Terrorism is something new for us, and we don't know how to tackle it," he said. "But there is a vacuum that needs to be filled. We need education, health and jobs. The people support the army, but if they don't see the light on the other side, they may turn and join the militants."

Other analysts said they were especially concerned about the spread of terrorist violence into settled areas outside the tribal zone. In the past month, more than 200 people have died in bombings in the northwest, including a horrific blast in a women's market that killed more than 100 people; bombings have also been carried out in the capital, Islamabad, and other cities.

The killing of the anti-Taliban mayor, who appears to have been the main target of the livestock market bombing Sunday, has raised fears that the Taliban forces are launching an aggressive new strategy to undermine leaders who organize and arm people against them, especially in the buffer zone between Peshawar, the northwest provincial capital, and the tribal belt.

"It is not a far-fetched assumption that militant organizations are prepared to open a new front in the suburbs of Peshawar," Khadim Hussain, a researcher at Bahria University in Islamabad, wrote in Dawn newspaper Tuesday. As the civilian toll mounts, he wrote, Pakistanis want to see a broader plan to address all aspects of the militant "onslaught on their lives, their culture, their society and their state."

One provincial legislator told journalists in Charsadda on Tuesday that the government was trying to improve protection but that the militants were "cleverer than the security planners." The legislator, Shakoor Khan, asked the public to "stand fast at this critical hour to defeat these terrorists. With the support of people, we can win over them . . . it is better to die a martyr's death than keep mum."

Khan, a special correspondent, reported from Peshawar.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company