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Pakistani Girl's Shooting Galvanizes Push For Offensive On Taliban Stronghold

Pakistani demonstrators rally in Islamabad on October 16 against the assassination attempt by the Taliban on child activist Malala Yousafzai.
Pakistani demonstrators rally in Islamabad on October 16 against the assassination attempt by the Taliban on child activist Malala Yousafzai.
Pakistani politicians, media, and civil society are pushing for a robust offensive to finish off the Taliban in the aftermath of the militants' shooting of a girl peace campaigner.

The October 9 gunning-down of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai and two classmates in northwestern Swat Valley has led to a groundswell of calls for Islamabad to abandon its long reluctance to take on extremist sanctuaries in the North Waziristan tribal region, on Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan. (Yousafzai has been transported to the United Kingdom for treatment, while the other two injured girls are recovering in Pakistan.)

The region is home to Pakistani and Afghan Taliban factions and allied international jihadists. For years, Islamabad resisted considerable pressure from Western capitals to launch an offensive in the region.

But the government and the military are now finding it difficult to resist growing domestic pressure for such an assault.

"Certainly there is a need for the government to launch an operation finally in North Waziristan, which has become the hub of all kinds of militancy," says Zahid Hussain, an Islamabad-based author. "Most of the attacks which have taken place inside Pakistan have their roots in North Waziristan."

Hussain says the civilian coalition government consisting of the Pakistan People's Party, the Awami National Party, and the Muthaida Qaumi Movement is now in favor of such an operation. Hussain says the government now needs to generate consensus with the opposition parties in parliament.

Many among the opposition have already expressed their backing.

The opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which has advocated talking to the Taliban over confronting them, now appears to be taking a harder line.

"The government should launch this operation because of its own interest and not because of being pushed by outside powers," says Amir Muqam, a PML-N lawmaker who has been targeted by Taliban suicide bombers in the past.

"It should convince the parliament and call a conference of all political parties to convince their leaders [about the urgency of such an offensive]. Everybody is against terrorism and finishing it off is in our best interests."

Popular Demand For Action

Clerics have also joined the calls for taking the fight to the Taliban.

Sahibzada Fazle Karim is head of the Sunni Ittehad Council, a powerful group that issued a fatwa, or religious decree, denouncing the Taliban's justification for targeting young Yousafzai.

"We want an immediate operation against the Taliban and will completely support the government," he told journalists on October 15, adding that the Taliban's only ideology was "terrorism."

Students pray for the early recovery of Malala Yousafzai at a government school in Mingora, the main town of the northwestern Swat Valley.
Students pray for the early recovery of Malala Yousafzai at a government school in Mingora, the main town of the northwestern Swat Valley.

Similar calls have been made across the country at small candlelight vigils, big political rallies, in newspaper columns, and on television talk shows.

An editorial on October 16 in the country's leading English-language daily, the "Express Tribune," concluded that "Pakistan has to fight terrorism and North Waziristan is the battleground." It added that the "world will rally around Pakistan if it decides to fight its own war."

Punjab Heartland Raises Its Voice

Khadim Hussain, an Islamabad-based political commentator, says Yousafzai's shooting has piled pressure on the government by forging unprecedented unity among Pakistanis on the fundamental issue of being able to lead a normal life in a peaceful country.

Hussain says that for the first time the demand for a North Waziristan offensive has turned into a popular cause in the eastern Punjab Province.

Punjab is home to some 60 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people. Most of the military's rank-and-file comes from the province.

This wealthy industrial and agricultural heartland of Pakistan has generally been spared the violence gripping the northwestern tribal regions and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. But its cities have endured Taliban attacks.

"From the majority Punjab region, the demands for such an offensive are emerging as a very strong popular demand. This puts huge pressure on the Pakistani military," Hussain says. "So I think they will not be able to trample over it."

Despite losing more than 3,000 soldiers during its decade-long deployment against extremists in the tribal areas, the Pakistani military has been reluctant to move into North Waziristan.

Its unwillingness over the years has raised international concerns and invited diplomatic pressure. Afghan and Western officials have consistently blamed Islamabad for allowing the region to be used as a safe haven for the Afghan Taliban.

The military's domestic critics see the Afghan Taliban networks in North Waziristan sheltering Pakistani extremists fighting the military in other tribal regions.

Top Pakistani military generals were meeting on October 17 to deliberate for two days. Media reports suggested they were discussing the possible North Waziristan offensive.

RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal contributed to this report
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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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