Gov’t Policies Questioned as Fighting Against Taliban Continues

By Shaheen Buneri | August 11, 2008 | 11:22 AM EDT

Peshawar, Pakistan ( – Fierce fighting in Pakistan’s remote tribal belt has left at least 100 Taliban fighters dead during a four-day military operation, according to Pakistan’s military.
Military spokesman Major Murad Khan said 13 soldiers had been killed during the fighting in Bajaur district, which borders Afghanistan’s Kunar province. Bajaur became a militant stronghold after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban regime in Kabul in late 2001.
Taliban spokesman Moulvi Omar claimed the group’s fighters had killed 22 security forces. He told reporters in Peshawar via telephone that the group also had taken control of a key highway and had established checkposts on all main routes, although military officials rejected that claim.
A local official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Taliban has besieged the town of Khar, the capital of the Bajaur district.
The military used planes and helicopter gunships in the operation, and at least 38 houses were reported destroyed. With the Taliban preventing access to the area, civilian casualty figures could not be ascertained.
Political observers say that the government’s erratic anti-terror policies have emboldened the militants.
“Inconsistency in government policies and lack of a realistic strategy are responsible for the rising tide of militancy,” said Rustam Shah Mohmand, a political analyst and former Pakistan ambassador.
“We have yet to devise a comprehensive terror strategy that can alleviate peoples’ grievances and address the issue of militancy in all its manifestations,” he added.
Pakistan’s political and military leadership appear to be following different scripts in their dealings with the militancy. This is merely spreading confusion, critics say, with the government talking to a militant group in one district while fighting against another group of militants in another district nearby.
As the Taliban continues to extend its control in the tribal zone known as the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the inhabitants of previously relatively peaceful parts of the adjoining North West Frontier Province (NWFP) are worried that the violence will spread there as well.
After the past month, the Taliban has killed 10 policemen and three paramilitary troops in the NWFP’s Dir and Buner districts, apart from ongoing fighting in the province’s Swat valley.
Khadim Hussain Amir, an Islamabad-based political observer, said the security forces appear to have lost motivation due to continuous shifts in government policies.
“I think the Taliban leadership sees this situation with much interest, as it has provided them space to spread terror and subdue people in the NWFP and the tribal areas,” he said.
Nine lawmakers representing FATA in the federal parliament warned Sunday they would call for nationwide protest demonstrations if the government does not stop military operations in Bajaur.
They complained that the government was sowing confusion – first providing space to the Taliban by ignoring their activities but now that they had become stronger launching half-hearted military offensives against them.
“Not a single senior militant leader has been killed or arrested in the four day military action, only civilians killed and their houses destroyed,” said one of the lawmakers, Shaukatullah Khan. “People in Bajaur are confronted with a human tragedy and it will produce more recruits for Taliban,” he said. “This apathy on the part of the government is further complicating the issue.”
Many are concerned about reports that the Taliban has now started sending militants to urban centers. Leaders of the Mutahida Quomi Movement, a political party in Karachi, warned the federal government of growing Taliban influence in Pakistan’s largest city.
Taliban spokesman Omar said there was no need to send militants from the tribal belt to Karachi since the group had already established bases in the city and were awaiting orders for further action from Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the umbrella Pakistan Taliban movement, Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), who is based in FATA.
Irfan Ashraf, a journalist who reports on FATA, said the government’s political and military establishments should “work on a unified plan of action for curbing militancy in the country.”
“It will have serious socio-political, economic and cultural consequences for the country and its people if Taliban were allowed to pursue their agenda of so-called Islamization,” he said.
Irfan said the military gave the impression that it could control Taliban whenever it wished to, but this was not the case.
“Militants have now organized a strong network both inside Pakistan and across the Pak-Afghan border and their successful strikes across the country have proved their strength.”