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Pakistan Battles Militancy, Political Turmoil in 2009


A persistent Taliban militancy is wreaking havoc across the country while a reinvigorated political scandal threatens to bring President Asif Ali Zardari's government to its knees.

As Pakistani forces intensified anti-terror operations along the Afghan border, Taliban militants brought the fight to the Pakistani people with a wave of suicide bombings and targeted attacks.

Militants have launched coordinated attacks in urban centers across the country.

Peace plan unsuccessful

At the start of 2009, the Pakistani government tried to pursue a peace plan with the Taliban in and around Swat Valley.

But the Taliban broke the terms of the peace deal and advanced to within 60 kilometers of the capital, Islamabad. There also were reports that the Taliban were committing human rights abuses, including forcing the closure of girls' schools.

Pakistani Education Minister Mir Hazar Khan Bijrani said the government had to respond.

A Pakistani army soldier stands guard at a checkpoint in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, 05 Dec 2009
A Pakistani army soldier stands guard at a checkpoint in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, 05 Dec 2009

"The NWFP [North West Frontier Government] government previously tried to go into a dialogue with the militants, but unfortunately that also failed," he explained. "So we have no other option but to control the situation through our law-enforcing agencies."

Swat becomes war zone

About 2.5 million people fled the violence. Swat Valley, which used to be an idyllic holiday spot in South Asia, quickly turned into a war zone.

By mid-2009, the U.S. Special Envoy for the region, Richard Holbrooke, commended Pakistan for making significant gains in Swat and the surrounding districts.

"We have said it before and let me say it again: Afghanistan cannot be stabilized unless Pakistan does its part in its western regions. And right now, finally, the Pakistani army is engaged in a very significant military offensive against the Taliban," said Holbrooke.

New strategy targets Taliban

But at the same time, the United States and its NATO and Afghan allies began facing a strengthening Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Washington began pressing Islamabad to expand its operations to the Waziristan tribal areas and tackle militants with explicit ties to the other side of the border.

Pakistan agreed, but did not offer any definite timeline. Critics accused the government of capitulating to U.S. demands and accepting increased U.S. aid that would undermine Pakistan's authority over its military.

But in October, things changed. First, a suicide bomber targeted the U.N. World Food Program headquarters in Islamabad. Less than a week later, militants launched an audacious assault on the country's army headquarters in neighboring Rawalpindi. Militants also carried out three separate attacks in one day in Lahore, targeting Pakistan's security forces.

After these attacks, Pakistani army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas announced the military had launched operations in South Waziristan against Taliban believed to operate exclusively in Pakistan.

"Any kind of instability in this region, or in this area, would radiate or affect instability in the other area," he said. "Therefore, one always looks forwards to more stability on the other side of the border. Because if the other side is stable and peaceful, that would transmit stability and peace on our side of the border also."

More progress needed

But the top U.S. military commander, Admiral Mike Mullen, tells VOA that Pakistan still needs to expand its operations. He says Pakistan needs to target Taliban who are believed to have fled Afghanistan to operate in sanctuaries in the North Waziristan tribal region.

"It is those Taliban that are killing Americans. It is those Taliban that are killing Afghans. It is those Taliban that are killing coalition forces from our allies, so it is going to take pressure on all extremist groups," noted Admiral Mullen.

Fighting for survival

As the military battles militants in the tribal regions, Pakistan's government fights for its very survival in Islamabad.

International Relations Associate Professor Ishtiaq Ahmad at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, warns of possible political chaos if corruption charges are reopened against those close to the president.

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

Uncertain future

Analysts say President Zardari already is making moves to protect his political future by shifting more power to the Parliament. The Pakistani president recently relinquished some of his powers, including the control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

As Pakistan enters 2010, it faces a battle on two fronts: against militants and against itself.