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Insecurity Increases As Pakistani Army Fights Pro-Taliban Militants

Fighting between the army and pro-Taliban militants is on the rise.
Fighting between the army and pro-Taliban militants is on the rise.
Thousands of people are fleeing northwestern Pakistan's Swat Valley as battles between the army and Taliban militants and other insurgents continue to rage. At least 95 militants, Pakistani soldiers, Taliban, and civilians have been killed in the past five days of fighting.

Afrasiab Khattak, the veteran Pashtun nationalist politician and peace envoy of the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), says that Pakistani failure to stamp out militant sanctuaries from Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) not only has a spillover effect into many districts of the adjoining NWFP but it is also undermining regional and global security.

"This situation in our tribal areas is similar to that of pre-9/11 Afghanistan. State authority in those regions has nearly ended. Militants fighting in both Pakistan and Afghanistan now control this area, which threatens the whole region," Khattak tells RFE/RL.

"We have repeatedly demanded a solution to this situation because we do not want these regions to turn into the battleground of a global conflict, as global powers respond to the threats emanating from these regions might be tempted to intervene [militarily]."

An apparent missile strike on July 28 reportedly killed Midhat Mursi as-Sayid Umar, also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri, a senior Al-Qaeda trainer known for his expertise in chemicals and poisons.

Over the past few years, similar attacks have killed many top Al-Qaeda leaders but Western officials still see the region as a bastion for terrorist activities. Many U.S. officials have warned that Al-Qaeda might be planning similar attacks to those of September 11, 2001, on U.S. and European targets from safe havens in the FATA.

Khattak's Awami National Party is part of Pakistan's ruling coalition. He insists that although the elected civilian government has been in office for four months, President Pervez Musharraf still controls all decisions on the FATA, and seems averse to any meaningful reforms that would ultimately weaken the militants' control over the area.

Khattak adds that the situation in the region is so dire that in July the NWFP's government asked the military for help as the police were helpless after thousands of Taliban overwhelmed local police in the NWFP's southern Hangu district.

Fighting in Hangu began in mid-July when some 400 militants surrounded a police station following a police raid that led to the arrest of seven armed Taliban. More than 50 militants and government soldiers died in the ensuing fighting.

Furthermore, more than 70 schools have been burned down in the area in the past year.

Residents Caught Between Militants, Government

But Khattak says a distinction needs to be made between militants and ordinary residents of the tribal areas. He adds that the vast majority of tribesmen are peaceful, but the state has denied them civil and political rights for so long, keeping them marginalized and underdeveloped.

Local villagers have been caught in the cross-fire.
"The people of FATA are hostages [in the hands of the militants] and the [federal] government has allowed that because they have not really tried to clear these regions from armed bands," Khattak says.

"So, on the one hand people in FATA have been threatened by the militants, on the other the government still wants to perpetuate discriminatory laws in that region," he adds. "Now, when the foreigners [U.S. and NATO forces] intervene in these regions, they only rely on military means -- long-range artillery and aerial bombing."

Other analysts in the region agree with Khattak and also describe the situation as alarming. Ijaz Khan, a professor of international relations at Peshawar University, says that the Pashtun regions in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have been turned into a single battlefield, but the political leaderships in both countries have so far failed to address this desperate situation.

"The Arab [militants] are fighting their war against the United States on Pashtun soil. Pakistan and India, too, want to fight their conflict on Pashtun soil. And the Pashtuns are dying as a result," Khan says.

"A whole generation of Pashtun youth in Swat, Dir, and other war-ravaged regions are deprived of education as their schools are closed," he adds. "What I see [is deeply disturbing]. The destruction that we have seen so far is nothing and six months from now people will remember the current state as being a lot better."

Khan adds that the past policies of confronting the militants and appeasing them through talks have failed, as the government lacked a broader policy of democratization and economic development while keeping a credible military deterrent against irreconcilable militant elements.

"Democratization should be an ongoing process," Khan says. "But some fighting will go on while there is parallel economic development. And education also has to go on to move the whole situation towards normalcy. But now we have not even started to move that way and the whole situation is going towards further destruction [and bloodshed]."

Such pessimism can be widely seen in northwestern Pakistan these days. In early July, the ruling Awami National Party announced it will revive its "Nangyalay Pashtun" volunteers and form them into "peace and defense committees." Though traditionally unarmed and loyal to the party's pacifist heritage, over the past century these volunteers have only been mobilized in extraordinary circumstances.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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