Although political developments (i.e. the Nawaz Sharif by-election controversy) caused quite a stir in media coverage of Pakistan this week, reports related to the militant and Taliban threat also garnered significant news attention. On Thursday, militants in the NWFP reportedly torched a state-owned hotel/ski resort in Swat. According to BBC News, “The nighttime attack follows sporadic clashes this week between militants and security forces and arson attacks on several [ten] girls’ schools.” The Daily Times added that in addition to these arson attacks, these suspected militants also killed a PPP leader [Abdul Akbar Khan] a tribal elder, and their family members. Despite these reports, however, the Times reported that “Taliban leader Ali Bakht denied his organization’s involvement in the attacks, saying they went against the spirit of the peace accord.” The BBC quoted militant spokesman Muslim Khan who said, “Our target is the security forces, we have nothing to do with the hotel.” Instead, he blamed “illegal mountain log cutters,” otherwise known as the “timber mafia” for the attacks because they did not want the government-militant peace accord to succeed. Nevertheless, noted the BBC’s Barbara Plett, the security situation in Swat has been deteriorating despite the one-month peace agreement currently in place.
The recent rise in attacks by Taliban-linked militants reportedly operating from Pakistan “is a real concern” for the current war in Afghanistan, said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates today. According to CNN, “Gates said he hopes a newly announced Pakistani effort to clamp down on Islamic militants in its northwestern tribal districts will improve the situation in Afghanistan, where the allied death toll hit a monthly peak Thursday.” He told reporters at the Pentagon today:
What has happened is that as various agreements have been negotiated or were in the process of negotiation with various groups by the Pakistani government … the pressure was taken off of these people and these groups, and they’ve therefore been more free to be able to cross the border and create problems for us.
Despite the increased concern from both the U.S. and Afghan camps, Gates did acknowledge that Pakistan’s new government has recognized this problem and that “these groups’ activities are a problem for the Pakistani government as well as for those of us in Afghanistan.” On Thursday, Dawn reported that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher will arrive in Islamabad next week “with a message of support for Islamabad’s new strategy of empowering the military to deal with militancy in the tribal areas.” Deputy spokesman at the State Department, Tom Casey, “noted that Pakistan’s new strategy for dealing with terrorism brings together political parties, the military, and some of the traditional leaders in Fata to ‘reiterate their opposition to extremism and their desire and willingness to combat it.’“
An editorial in Thursday’s edition of the Daily Times also lauded the Pakistani government’s effort against the militant threat in the country. Entitled, “Problem Number One Finally Gets Attention,” the piece reported that PM Yousaf Raza Gilani has designated Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Ashfaq Kayani “the principal for the application of the military effort,” essentially putting him in charge of tackling violence in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Area]. The meeting resolved that “Pakistan would not allow its territory to be used against other countries, especially Afghanistan, and under no circumstances would foreign troops be allowed to operate inside Pakistan.” Those attending the meeting were also unanimous in concluding that terrorism and extremism were the gravest threat to Pakistan’s national security. The editors at the Daily Times asserted,
There is no doubt that war against internal terrorism is Pakistan’s war. In many ways it is more dangerous than any war we have fought in the past because it is within our national borders. We are distracted by other concomitant crises that need to be addressed; but by not deciding which one to tackle first, we are endangering Pakistan. Politically speaking, some people say that our problem number one is the restoration of the judges, but the world thinks that Pakistan is sitting on a powder keg watching “long marches” of another kind that are accorded much lower priority by us. So let us get our act together. Once we have countered the creeping loss of territory to the terrorist warlords there will be time enough to put the nation’s judicial system right.
The dynamic between Pakistan’s internal war against terrorism and the external tensions increasing with the U.S. and Afghanistan [due to cross-border attacks] was addressed further in a Council on Foreign Relations interview with Teresita Schaffer, the director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies‘ South Asia program. When asked to discuss the essential “disconnect” between the U.S. and Pakistan since the country’s February elections, Schaffer said,
…The top priority for the United States is essentially border control: preventing the Taliban in Afghanistan, where of course we have troops, from taking sanctuary in Pakistan; preventing their movement back and forth across that border. For the Pakistan government, the top priority along the Afghan border and in that area is closing down suicide bombing within Pakistan. They are dealing with an internal insurgency…But what they most want to see is an end to suicide bombing, and an end to the phenomenon of insurgents taking control of pieces of territory inside Pakistan.
This reported “disconnect” between the U.S. and Pakistan was not all that surprising given that this new government was essentially elected by a highly-charged, anti-American constituency [who are not all extremists, by the way, note the Samad Khurram episode last week]. Nevertheless, these forces were perhaps able to “come together” when they realized that fighting this militant threat was in their common interest. However, Washington had to first understand and respect that this was not the same “Pakistani ally” they were once used to. Likewise, Pakistan had to comprehend the need to prioritize this extremist threat, a force that terrorizes its country’s civilians and endangers its national security. Only then, could this “disconnect” have any chance of being resolved. [Images from BBC News, Getty Images]