This week, the Taliban finally responded to the massive army operation in the Swat valley with a string of bombings in Peshawar, Lahore and the tribal district of Dera Ismail Khan. As shocking as they were, however, the attacks were as predictably violent as all the others that have rocked Pakistan almost weekly for the past several years. With a key Taliban base about to be lost in Pakistan’s north-west, the recent attacks may well represent the beginning of a new wave of violence.
Four bombings rocked the troubled North West Frontier Province yesterday, three of those were in the markets of Peshawar where book, music and clothes shop owners have, since at least last year, been routinely threatened with bomb attacks by the Taliban for trading in "un-Islamic" goods.
Only a day earlier a gun and bomb attack in central Lahore killed at least 30 and injured close to 300 more. Among the dead were seven personnel of the powerful Inter Services Intelligence, including an officer. Rescue workers are continuing to unearth bodies from the rubble.
Although the ISI was the ostensible target in Lahore, the broader aim appears to have been to show that the Taliban is still a force to be reckoned with.
Pakistan’s many news channels were flooded with images of misery late Thursday evening. Along with the now familiar sight of entire mountain communities living in camps for displaced people, there were the pictures of the bloodied, injured survivors of Lahore and Peshawar.
Taliban spokesperson Hakimullah Mehsud said the Lahore attack was in response to "the innocent people killed [by the army]in Swat". It was an obvious appeal to the estimated 2.5 million made homeless by the war with the Pakistan army in the tribal areas. If ethnic Pakhtuns in the tribal areas have to suffer, so the reasoning goes, so too should Punjabis who make up the bulk of the army.
These latest attacks are a sign of the Taliban’s weakness, not its strength. That it can only respond with violence — mostly against poor Muslims — says much about the Taliban’s long term vision and the veracity of its claims to be a vanguard for true Islam.
This week I have been travelling through displaced person camps just below the war zone in the Swat valley, which stretch all the way to Peshawar. Almost all the people I met spoke of their deep hatred for the Taliban. They were everyday people — mothers, bureaucrats, tradesmen and school kids — yet all spoke with a common purpose.
"If the war stopped tomorrow, I would go back home the very next day," said Mohammad Yayha from the village of Kokari, near the main Swat city of Mingora where the army is currently engaged in bloody street battles with the Taliban.
Many said that the Taliban has been deliberately hiding among civilians, particularly in their villages, effectively turning them into human shields. They also noted the Taliban’s continuation of hostilities in outlying regions of Swat and the neighbouring areas of Dir and Buner after a peace deal was tenuously reached in February, well before the current operation commenced.
Although there is also anger at the army, it has — along with the Pakistan Government and numerous NGOs — been providing tents and supplies for the approximately 20 per cent of the displaced people who are believed to be living in the camps. The remaining 80 per cent have sought refuge among family, friends and community organisations in other parts of the country. Throughout the country, Pakistanis have opened their hearts and wallets to these people, despite attempts by some in Karachi to block the displaced from entering the city.
In a refuge on the outskirts of Peshawar, just seven kilometres from Taliban-controlled Dera Adam Khel, they sang ancient Pakhtun poems about wine and beautiful dancing girls. It was a far cry from the vision of Pakistan the Taliban promises to create.
Yet, as with the immediate future of stability in this country, many remain uncertain about whom they should be blaming for all this violence. One source of this uncertainty is continual denial about home grown militancy. Major religious parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamaat-e-Ulema-Islami refuse to even use the word Taliban. And army spokesperson General Athar Abbas, Pakistan’s own version of a glib Pentagon spokesperson who issues daily press statements promising the enemy will soon be vanquished, has generally preferred to talk of "miscreants" rather than use the T word.
Even rank-and-file soldiers are uncertain about the enemy they are facing. One junior officer said he did not believe the Taliban were behind atrocities like the gruesome murder of captured army personnel.
The people of Swat I spoke to didn’t seem to have such misgivings. Under the banner of "Aman Tehreek" or Peace Movement, ordinary villagers, clerics and local NGOs from Swat have joined forces to demand a cohesive, long term strategy for defeating the Taliban and bringing justice, education and employment to Swat.
"We are inspired by our great leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan," says Swat school teacher and activist Ziauddin Yusufzai in reference to the respected 20th century Pakhtun leader who is often described as the region’s Mahatma Gandhi.
"The movement was formed to denounce the three [forms of terrorism] — Taliban, sectarianism, and kidnappings [for ransom]," says NGO worker Fazal Maula.
"The army must eliminate the miscreants," he adds, but only through carefully targeted operations that cause a minimum of harm to civilians. The group has called on authorities to be more responsible in its military campaign and develop a detailed program for reconstruction. With its emerald mines, lumber industry and scenic beauty, Aman Tehreek believes Swat could quickly be reinvigorated.
Appeals for donations are being made on television and in markets across Pakistan. The clear signal is that, for the first time, Pakistanis are rallying with the Government and against the Taliban’s violent crusade.
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