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Pakistani Troops Seek To Counter Taliban Threat To Peshawar

A home in Bar Qambarkhel said to have belonged to Haji Namdar, the head of a hard-line group seeking Taliban-style rule, on June 30
Pakistan's current offensive against pro-Taliban militants in a western tribal region near the North West Frontier Province's capital, Peshawar, is regarded as the country's first military response to ease concerns over a possible Taliban takeover of that strategic metropolis.

The operation comes after months of negotiations and attempts at peacemaking with the Taliban have yielded few tangible results.

Some 5,000 Pakistani paramilitary troops -- equipped with tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery -- have advanced into the town of Bara in the Khyber tribal district, a mere 15 kilometers west of Peshawar.

The aim of their operation is to put an end to the growing influence of pro-Taliban militants in and around Peshawar, a strategic city of some 3 million people located just east of the famous Khyber Pass leading into Afghanistan. The offensive also underscores the role of Peshawar, the purported birthplace of Al-Qaeda, as a key front in the battle against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"If Peshawar falls then the whole of [North West Frontier Province] will fall and the [eastern province of] Punjab is not far," Ijaz Khan, a professor of international relations at Peshawar University, told RFE/RL. "It is wrong to assume that consequences of such an eventuality will not spread. This will dramatically worsen the whole situation."

Some analysts worry that the offensive, like previous Pakistani military actions in the area, will be temporary and lead to more deal making with militants. So far, the military operation has met with little resistance because rival pro-Taliban groups have been involved for years in violent sectarian conflict with one another.

One group is Lashkar-e Islam. The pro-Taliban militia controls large swaths of the Khyber district and is enforcing harsh measures to regulate public life. Lashkar-e Islam is locked in conflict with Ansar-ul-Islam, a rival militia. But the government responded to its activities only after the group reportedly kidnapped 16 Christians from Peshawar on June 21 and made raids into the city.

Regional Ties?

Reports from the tribal region on June 30 said Pakistani forces destroyed a house in the village of Bar Qambarkhel that was owned by another Islamic militant leader -- killing at least six people. The house belonged to Haji Namdar, head of the hard-line Vice and Virtue Movement, a group seeking Taliban-style Islamic law. Reports indicate Namdar's group has sheltered Arab and Central Asian militants suspected of carrying out attacks on NATO supplies being transported through the Khyber Pass.

A senior Pakistani security official has confirmed that Namdar's house was destroyed, saying that Pakistani ground troops were involved in the operation.

Namdar reportedly survived the explosion that destroyed his home. Namdar's spokesman claims the explosion was caused by a NATO missile strike.

On June 28, Pakistani troops destroyed the home of Lashkar-e Islam leader Mangal Bagh in the town of Bara. They also demolished the headquarters of the rival Ansar-ul-Islam group early on June 29 after the government in Islamabad outlawed all three groups.

Apart from the Khyber Pass to the west of Peshawar, Taliban factions also have been extending their influence from the tribal town of Darra Adam Khel on a strategic highway about 40 kilometers south of Peshawar.

Meanwhile, from the tribal districts of Mohmand and Bajaur about 30 kilometers north of Peshawar, fighters from other Taliban-linked groups have been making inroads into the city and the nearby towns of Charssada and Mardan.

Mounting Fears

Concerns about a growing Taliban threat to Peshawar were raised last week when Pakistani and international media published reports about the possibility the city might fall into Taliban hands.

Afrasiab Khattak, a peace envoy from the Awami National Party-led provincial government, has downplayed the threat.

"The peace and security situation in Pakistan over the past few years has deteriorated because of the flawed polices of [President] General Pervez Musharraf -- years of bad policies and judgments have resulted in the current grave state of affairs," Khattak said. "The security situation in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and the adjacent settled districts of NWFP is bad. Across the border in eastern and southern Afghanistan the security situation is dire, too. Peshawar is not facing an imminent particular security threat. But it shares the security situation and concerns of the surrounding regions."

Others in Peshawar offered a more alarming analysis.

Ijaz Khan said the Taliban have gradually increased their influence over the past five years from Waziristan, some 500 kilometers south of Peshawar. He said their influence is now visible, with the militants making sporadic raids into Peshawar in a bid to regulate residents' lives by blowing up DVD shops and targeting those considered un-Islamic.

"The notion that Taliban have laid siege to Peshawar might not be right in the conventional sense as their forces are not waiting at the gates to take over the city," Ijaz Khan said, "but their influence is gradually increasing and the government seems to have no clear policy to confront it."

Key Questions

Located on a key route that links Pakistan and Afghanistan, Peshawar had been a bastion for the anti-Soviet Afghan Mujahedin resistance during the 1980s. Radical Arab veterans of that war also founded the Al-Qaeda network in Peshawar during the late 1980s.

Provincial police in NWFP recently announced a comprehensive plan to protect Peshawar. But the plan has so far contributed little to improving security.

The provincial government advocates a comprehensive strategy of political empowerment, economic development, and peace building. Khattak is adamant that Pakistan's new democratically elected government will deliver on its pledge to restore peace and security in the country.

"The new government has been in office for less than a hundred days, but over the past few weeks, we had a lot of high-level meetings in Islamabad and Peshawar and we have completed a comprehensive strategy," Khattak said. "This strategy will be implemented and you will see its results soon. The government is fully aware that protecting the life and property of its citizens is its primary responsibility. Unlike in the past, when using military might was the first and only strategy, the new government will engage in negotiations [with militants] but will use force against those who break the law."

Still, many analysts pointed out that Pakistan's elected leaders may not have the authority or resources to implement any well-intentioned comprehensive anti-terror policy. That is because the country's powerful military establishment continues to dominate vital policy decisions related to security.

Ijaz Khan said the actions of the current government resemble what he described as futile efforts by the previous regime.

"So far, the military actions consist of a few days of fighting resulting in the casualties of combatants from both sides and some innocent citizens," Ijaz Khan said, "Then they start negotiations, which often result in deal making. Such deals, in turn, result in increased Taliban influence."

Many Peshawar residents will have similar concerns, at least until they see real improvements to security in their beleaguered city and the surrounding regions.
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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.