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    Pakistan Battles Militants, Political Scandal in 2009

    Analysts foresee tough year ahead on both fronts

    At the start of 2009, Pakistan's government pursued a peace plan with Taliban militants in and around the Swat Valley, once a holiday destination.
    At the start of 2009, Pakistan's government pursued a peace plan with Taliban militants in and around the Swat Valley, once a holiday destination.

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    U.S. President Barack Obama has made Pakistan a key part of his new strategy in Afghanistan.  But as the U.S. and NATO battle Taliban militants in Afghanistan, Pakistan is facing its own challenges.  Taliban insurgents have launched bomb attacks across the country.  Meanwhile, a political scandal threatens to undermine the government of President Asif Ali Zardari. 

    At the start of 2009, Pakistan's government pursued a peace plan with Taliban militants in and around the Swat Valley, once a holiday destination.

    But the Taliban broke the terms of the deal and advanced in the greater Swat Valley to within 60 kilometers of the capital, Islamabad.  Taliban fighters conducted public beatings and also closed down some girls' schools.

    Education Minister Mir Hazar Khan Bijrani said the government had to respond. "So we have no other option but to control the situation through our law enforcing agencies," he said.

    As Pakistani troops descended on the Swat Valley, about two and a half million people fled the violence. 

    By mid-2009, the United States commended Pakistan's military for significant gains in Swat and surrounding districts.

    "And right now, finally, the Pakistani army is engaged in a very significant military offensive against the Taliban," Richard Holbrooke, Special US Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan said.

    But as U.S. and NATO forces faced a growing Taliban insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan, Washington pressed Islamabad to do more against militants in the tribal areas who were crossing into Afghanistan to stage attacks there. 

    In October, bomb blasts across Pakistan - on the UN's World food Program in Islamabad, on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi and on security forces in Lahore - kept Pakistan's focus on its own territory. 

    Days after, the military announced a major offensive in South Waziristan against Taliban militants who claimed responsibility for the attacks.

    "Any kind of instability in this region, or in this area, would radiate or affect instability in the other area," Major General Athar Abbas, spokesman for Pakistan's army said.

    But Washington's top military commander, Admiral Mike Mullen, tells VOA that Pakistan also needs to target Taliban insurgents, mostly in North Waziristan, who are using sanctuaries there to attack coalition forces in Afghanistan.  "It's those Taliban that are killing Americans.  It's those Taliban that are killing Afghans.  It's those Taliban that are killing coalition forces from our allies, so it's going to take pressure on all extremist groups," he stated.

    On another front, on December 16,  Pakistan's Supreme Court struck down an amnesty decree protecting President Asif Ali Zardari and other senior officials from charges of corruption.

    Pakistani opposition groups, reacting to the decision, have been calling for Mr. Zardari's resignation.   

    The ruling paves the way to reviving corruption cases pending against the president's close aides and political allies. 

    As president, Mr. Zardari is immune from prosecution. Some  analysts say the government could be further weakened if corruption cases are reopened against those close to him.


    "Political instability is the last thing that can happen in Pakistan because when [a] political crisis occurs, [the] economy goes down.  And these two things are unaffordable when a country is facing a severe terrorist threat," Ishtiaq Ahmad said.

    President Zardari recently relinquished some of his powers, including control over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. He handed that to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

    2010 looks to be another difficult year for Pakistan, with an ongoing fight against insurgents and court challenges to the country's leaders.

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