(CNSNews.com) – Pakistan’s government at the weekend launched a military offensive against Islamists who are trying to expand their control across the country’s northwest by force, but senior officials continue to send out mixed messages about Islamabad’s willingness to bargain with the militants.
After growing concerns voiced by U.S. political and military figures, Pakistani troops early Sunday attacked Taliban fighters in Dir, a part of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) lying between the Afghanistan border and the Swat valley, where the government recently negotiated a peace agreement with the extremist group.
That peace deal permitted the Pakistan “arm” of the Taliban, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), to enforce shari’a law in Swat and the surrounding areas that make up the Malakand Division, in exchange for an end to a two-year campaign of violence.
The government dismissed criticism about capitulation to terrorism, but TTP fighters then began flexing their muscles in areas adjoining their Swat stronghold, including Buner to the south – an area just 60 miles from Islamabad – and Dir to the west.
In a grim incident possibly hinting at a violent campaign to come, a bomb reportedly disguised to look like a toy football exploded outside a girls’ primary school in Dir on Saturday, while children were playing with it.
Twelve children ranging from five to 13-years old were killed, police reported. The TTP views the education of girls as un-Islamic, and the violent targeting of schools for girls has been a trademark militant tactic in Swat, where hundreds have been forced to close.
Previous “peace” accords struck with militants in the NWFP and adjacent tribal belt have adversely affected security in Afghanistan, where the U.S. plans to begin deploying an additional 17,000 combat troops to enhance the efforts of those already stationed there. (Experts say the TTP is allied with, but organizationally distinct from, the Taliban in Afghanistan.)
Last week, in quick succession, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen and U.S. Central Command head Gen. David Petraeus all voiced concern about the developments, in some cases describing the threat as an existential one.
Mullen warned that the situation was moving “closer to the tipping point,” while Gates said Pakistan leaders must both recognize and act against the threat posed by the Taliban.
“We cannot let this go on any further,” Clinton told Fox News while traveling in the Middle East Saturday, citing the danger of militants seizing control of Pakistan and its nuclear weapons arsenal.
Evidently responding to the concerns, the government prepared to launch an operation in Buner, prompting TTP leaders to reach a quick agreement with local authorities to pull fighters back into Swat. TTP spokesman Muslim Khan, based in Swat, said all had withdrawn, although local media outlets called the claim into question.
Islamabad on Sunday sent helicopter gunships and Frontier Corps troops into Dir where, according to a military statement, 10 “miscreants” were killed in fighting.
The military said the operation has been launched at the request of the NWFP provincial government, and that residents of the affected area had welcomed the troops gladly.
The outlook, however, remains unclear.
On the one hand, the government is talking tough. Islamabad will neither compromise on enforcing its authority nor allow militants to establish parallel authorities anywhere in the country, President Asif Ali Zardari’s spokesman Farhatullah Babar said after a high-level security meeting on the NWFP situation on Friday night.
A hard-hitting message also came from Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik, who said there was now no option for the militant but to lay down their arms.
Yet at the same time, the government is giving assurances that the agreement with the TTP in Swat, in Babar’s words, remains “intact.”
Dismissing criticism to the contrary, the government maintains that allowing shari’a in Swat and surrounding areas as demanded by the TTP does not constitute relinquishing state authority to militants.
Supporters of the deal argue that allowing shari’a removes a major “justification” cited by the TTP to continue an armed campaign.
Khan, the TTP spokesman, said the militants had no plans to surrender their weapons.