Friday, July 18, 2008

Latest Threat from Taliban

Taliban threaten to strike provincial government in Pakistan
From Friday's Globe and Mail, July 17, 2008

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — Taliban militants in Pakistan threatened Thursday to attack the provincial government in the troubled North West unless it quit within five days, deepening the security crisis.

Baitullah Mehsud, a warlord based in the tribal area of Waziristan and the leader of Pakistan's Taliban movement, demanded the military cease its sporadic operations against Taliban groups. The showdown came as the Taliban across the border in Afghanistan have stepped up their campaign against NATO and Afghan forces, exacting greater casualties and launching more daring assaults.

The North West Frontier Province government is led by the secular Awami National Party, which has tried to promote peace talks with militant groups. But in two parts of the province, Swat Valley and Hangu district, it has been forced to call on the army and paramilitary forces to combat local insurgent groups allied to Mr. Mehsud's Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan movement.

“We will attack the provincial government and the ANP leaders after five days if they do not quit,” said Maulvi Omar, a spokesman for Mr. Mehsud.

The ANP, which has pacifist roots, was elected in February on an agenda of negotiating a settlement with extremists and has pursued dialogue with Taliban groups. But talk of peace has come up against the hard reality of militants who are willing to give up very little and who demand Islamic law and the retreat of the Pakistani army from their territory as the price for ending hostilities. Mr. Omar accused the provincial government of being “insincere” in the peace talks.

The ANP-led government, which came in with a thumping mandate that rejected the previous administration of hard-line religious parties, made clear that it had no intention of resigning.

“We will not step down [based] on a threat from some individual,” said NWFP government spokesman Iftikhar Hussain. “They are threatening to follow the path of violence, while we believe in peace.”

Separately, the army announced that it would continue operations in Hangu until the militants were driven out.

“This is open war,” predicted Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard University. “This [ultimatum] will help the provincial government to see things more clearly. They can now take direct action against Baitullah Mehsud because there is a direct threat.”

Mr. Mehsud was reacting to very limited Pakistani army actions. In Hangu, the Pakistani army was forced to step in last week after the Taliban surrounded a police station and later killed 16 paramilitary troops – eight of whom were reportedly executed after capture. In Swat, the army was deployed late last year to tackle a band of extremists who had taken over the scenic valley. And around the provincial capital of Peshawar, the army is flushing out Islamist militants – this time not allied to the Taliban – who were encroaching on the city limits.

There is little doubt about Mr. Mehsud's violent capabilities. His organization is thought to be behind most of the suicide bomb attacks seen in Pakistan over the last year, while his warriors have assumed control of most of the tribal area, the sliver of Pakistani land that lies between NWFP and Afghanistan. For the most part, the Pakistani army and the local paramilitary have not intervened.

It had been thought that Mr. Mehsud was keen to forge a peace deal in Pakistan, to concentrate on fighting in Afghanistan. He is reportedly under pressure from the Afghan Taliban to end his fight with the Pakistani state, which it sees as a distraction from the war in Afghanistan. But Thursday's threat from Mr. Mehsud showed that Pakistan remains in his sights.

“He [Mehsud] believes that now he is strong enough to destabilize a sitting government through violence,” said Khalid Aziz, a former senior bureaucrat in NWFP. “The situation is very explosive.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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