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Pakistan fights back

At last, it takes the Taliban seriously

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN Until a few months ago, Pakistani officials often used the term "miscreants" when they described the Taliban fighters operating from the western tribal areas. This moniker conveyed the sense that the Taliban was a nuisance -- a ragtag band of fanatics and gangsters who could be placated with peace deals -- rather than a mortal threat to the nation.

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That state of denial appears to be over. This week's offensive against Taliban sanctuaries in South Waziristan is the latest sign that Pakistan has awakened to the seriousness of its domestic terrorism problem. Here's how one of Pakistan's top military commanders put it to me, expressing sentiments that are widely shared among his colleagues:

"We must win, if we want our children to be living a life of their choice and belief, and not of these beasts. I wish I could tell you how much I hate them. We want to get our beautiful and peaceful country back from their vicious clutches. We cannot allow them to destroy our future."

Popular anger against the Taliban has been building this year. Back in April, the country seemed dazed and politically paralyzed. But as the Islamic extremists broke out of the Swat Valley that month and moved closer to the capital, something changed. The army launched an aggressive campaign in Swat, the Taliban fighters were pushed back and the public cheered.

The Taliban countered with a recent wave of terrorist attacks, and a visitor sees more checkpoints and roadblocks now than a few weeks ago. People are edgy, but the suicide bombers haven't broken public support for the army's assault in Waziristan. Quite the opposite, judging from editorials in the country's sometimes strident newspapers.

"The politicians may be divided over other matters but are united over the need for a military operation against the terrorists," wrote the Daily Times. "If peace is to be restored in Pakistan, militancy has to be crushed," argued the Post. Dawn editorialized that "at the moment, the political will and public support is on the security forces' side."

An official of the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, the country's spy agency, says, "The majority feel this should have been done yesterday." The recent wave of terrorism, he contends, is the Taliban's attempt "to reassert themselves" and "create ill will against the army" to check the Waziristan offensive. "That will not deter us from this operation -- and taking it to its logical end," he insists.

Security is tight at the army's headquarters in Rawalpindi. On Oct. 10, Taliban terrorists stormed past the green lawns and the stately cricket pitch at the entrance and penetrated deep into the compound, killing eight soldiers. That assault on the army's inner sanctum worried the country -- the Karachi stock market went into a brief free fall -- but it hardened the military's resolve.

In his office 100 yards from where the attack began, Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the military's spokesman, says the offensive against the Taliban haven marks an end to past thinking that "somehow we'll be able to manage them, co-opt them, bring them on board." About 28,000 Pakistani troops are advancing down the three main roads of South Waziristan, pursuing an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 fighters into their mountain strongholds. The army plans to stay until it has control of this rugged area, arguably for the first time in Pakistan's history.

Abbas says that to win, the army must be seen as operating independently of the United States: "We told the Americans, stay away. Let us do it." To demonstrate that independence, the Pakistanis asked the United States to halt its highly effective Predator drone attacks over South Waziristan. "Public support is more important," explains one military official.

Pakistan has pledged action against the Taliban in the past, only to make peace agreements when the fighting got tough. It's too early to say whether the early resolve this time will carry through the harsh winter, as the army confronts the notoriously tough Mehsud tribesmen. In the tribal areas, "people are always on the winning side. They wait and see the outcome," says Abbas.

If the Waziristan campaign does succeed, it would create an important new dynamic in the region. Rather than a weak Pakistan that doesn't control its Afghan border, we might see a strong Pakistan that -- by securing its tribal areas -- can be a more effective partner in neighboring Afghanistan. That would be a big boost for the United States, but to work, it must be labeled "Made in Pakistan."

davidignatius@washpost.com



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