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Taliban, Al-Qaida Threaten Pakistan

Military and political analysts in Pakistan are expressing growing concern that al-Qaida and Taliban-linked insurgents are now emerging from their traditional strongholds along the border with Afghanistan and are becoming a serious threat to the entire country. The number of terrorist attacks in populated areas is skyrocketing and analysts say government efforts to stem the violence are not working. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details from Islamabad.

In recent months, suicide bombers have caused death and destruction across Pakistan, striking in population centers like Lahore, Peshawar and Rawalpindi.

In 2007, the Pakistani government says there were at least 55 suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks in Pakistan, killing 600 people.

That is nearly 10 times the number of such attacks during the previous year.

Talat Masood is a retired Lieutenant General who spent 39 years in Pakistan's Army and is now a political and defense analyst.

Masood says violence caused by extremists is now spreading from the tribal areas into the heart of Pakistan, a development he describes as alarming.

"The militancy is on the rise and it is expanding its influence, not only in the tribal belt, but also in the settled areas and it is moving downwards in all directions and it is getting extremely dangerous," he noted.

Pakistani President and former army chief of staff Pervez Musharraf has sent 100,000 soldiers into the tribal areas, but they have not been able to contain the violence or keep militants from staging attacks in other parts of the country.

During a recent tour of Europe, Mr. Musharraf told world leaders that Pakistan has been successful in fighting al-Qaida, the Taliban and other Islamic extremists.

He strongly rejects the idea that his government is failing in the fight against terrorism.

"We have not failed," he said. "We are going along fighting al-Qaida, fighting militant Taliban and fighting Talibanization flowing outside and also fighting extremism in some segments of our society in Pakistan."

However opposition politicians in Pakistan like Imran Khan say the situation here is going from bad to worse.

"The question that needs to be asked is how come if General Musharraf is our best bet to fight terrorism, how come terrorism is increasing by leaps and bounds?" he asked. "Last year was the bloodiest year for Pakistan, culminating in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto."

Ms. Bhutto was assassinated last December in a suicide bombing and shooting attack in Rawalpindi.

Her death led to widespread rioting and protests and forced a delay of nationwide elections.

The government has blamed the assassination on al-Qaida-linked militants.

Intelligence officials in the United States and elsewhere are expressing concern that al-Qaida is growing in strength in what has become a safe haven for the terrorist group in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

They are concerned the region could become a place for al-Qaida to plan terrorist attacks abroad.

Analyst Talat Masood says the militants are more successful than the Pakistani government in winning support from the local population along the rugged border with Afghanistan.

"What about winning the hearts and minds of the people of the tribal area? Where has the government succeeded in doing that? In fact, the militants have been able to sort of win them over, in relative terms, more that what the government has been able to do. I think their policy is not working," he said.

The United States has launched an ambitious aid plan in an effort to counter militancy in Pakistan's tribal areas.

Over the next five years U.S. officials plan to spend $750 million to create jobs, open schools, build hundreds of miles of new roads and improve literacy in an area where nearly no one can read.

This is in addition to the billions of dollars in U.S. aid flowing to the Pakistani Army to fight the militants.

But analyst Talat Masood predicts the military will continue to struggle in its effort to defeat the extremists.

"This is not a conventional war," he added. "We are not fighting the last war as though we were fighting with an adversary like India or anyone. It is a different sort of a war, asymmetrical warfare or guerrilla warfare."

U.S. defense officials have offered to send troops into Pakistan to help defeat al-Qaida and Taliban forces, but only if the government here wants the help.

President Musharraf has made it clear that such a request is not likely to come from his government.

"The man on the street in Pakistan does not want any foreign intrusion into Pakistan," he explained. "It is an issue of the sovereignty of our country. And the United States and anyone who talks of that must understand the sensitivity of the man in the street. So, I do not think this is possible at all that any foreign forces will be allowed into Pakistan."

U.S. officials are deeply concerned that what appears to be a growing insurgency in Pakistan is becoming bolder and spreading quickly into the heart of the country.

While the government in Islamabad remains a strong ally of the United States in the war on terror, analysts say the violence here is creating instability that poses a serious threat to the future of Pakistan.