INTERVIEW
 
Pakistan to ramp up fight against Taliban after market bombing
Los Angeles Times
June 15, 2009
Reporting from New Delhi and Peshawar, Pakistan -- Pakistan announced late Sunday that it planned to expand its offensive against Taliban militants into the troubled South Waziristan region. The announcement came just hours after a bomb in a crowded market killed eight people and wounded 38.

The deadly bombing in the North-West Frontier Province was the latest in a series of attacks believed to be in retaliation for the army's offensive against strongholds of the Islamic militant group.

Owais Ahmed Ghani, the province's governor, announced that the army would extend its fight against militants to the portion of Waziristan abutting the border with Afghanistan. Ghani's confirmation of the move, which followed weeks of rumors to that effect, didn't say when it would start. The area is the stronghold of the country's most powerful Taliban commander, Baitullah Mahsud.

"The military and law-enforcing agencies have been ordered to carry out a full-scale operation to eliminate these beasts and killers," Ghani said at a news conference.

Also Sunday, a reported attack by a drone aircraft in the South Waziristan tribal area was said to have killed as many as five people. A missile fired from the drone hit a vehicle in Laddah, about 40 miles north of the region's main town of Wana, sources said.

In mid-May, U.S. officials acknowledged having flown drones in cooperation with the Pakistani government. The reported attack Sunday was the first since May 16.

Pakistani analysts, citizens and a growing number of U.S. analysts say the military value of such strikes is usually more than offset by the loss of public goodwill. The highly unpopular program, which has killed many civilians, has been viewed in Pakistan as an affront to the nation's sovereignty.

"They may hit a target, but it has a 10-times-greater negative impact on public opinion," said Ishtiaq Ahmad, a professor at Islamabad's Quaid-i-Azam University. "The U.S. and Pakistan need to cooperate and coordinate better on the civilian and the military side."

The U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday approved a tripling of aid to Pakistan to about $1.5 billion a year in a bid to combat militancy through development. The country is now the largest recipient of U.S. aid.

On Saturday, Pakistan's army stepped up its air offensive with bombing raids on Darra Adam Khel, a militant stronghold near Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province.

Analysts said the strikes were in retaliation for Friday's killing of an anti-Taliban cleric in a suicide attack in Lahore.

Dera Ismail Khan, the site of Sunday's market bombing, has a history of sectarian violence, although the motives for the attack were unclear, and no one immediately claimed responsibility.

The bomb, which exploded around noon, was placed in a handcart parked in the city's Gunj market. Several shops were damaged.

The announced offensive in Waziristan would target an area rumored to be Osama bin Laden's hide-out. Although the army was able to surround Swat in the offensive, it faces a far more difficult challenge in Waziristan, given the porous Afghan border.

Ghani suggested Sunday that the offensive had already begun, although the army in recent weeks has said its strikes are retaliatory.

Analysts said Taliban leader Mahsud, who has been blamed for the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto -- a charge he denies -- had posed a strong challenge to the government's authority.

Any new offensive, which could also extend to North Waziristan, would probably add to Pakistan's humanitarian crisis. The country is already struggling to help more than 2 million people displaced by earlier offensives. The government announced plans to set up two camps near South Waziristan that are able to handle 200,000 more people.

In recent weeks, militants have launched suicide attacks against a provincial intelligence headquarters in Lahore and a luxury hotel in Peshawar that housed many U.N. staffers, among others.

In Peshawar, business in the bazaars has slumped as fearful citizens remain home.

Analysts said unlike previous attacks, which targeted security services or Western-linked hotels, the latest bombing appeared to target civilians indiscriminately.

Dera Ismail Khan also was hit in 2007 after a controversial security operation against militants holed up in Islamabad's Red Mosque.

"As we see the operation intensify in Swat and beyond, the Taliban is increasing its random violence, perhaps out of frustration or desperation," said Ahmad, the professor. "They want to prolong the terror process, hoping to derail the government, spread fear and win more recruits."

What was perhaps surprising, some analysts said, was how long the Taliban took to mount suicide and other attacks after the army began its Swat offensive in late April -- although the Taliban now seems to be making up for lost time.

"In fact, it now appears the backlash is just beginning and that more spectacular and random terror attacks have to be expected," Ahmad said.

Helicopters and jet fighters also pounded militant positions over the weekend in the Bajaur tribal region, considered a Taliban stronghold.

Officials said nine suspects were killed, although this could not be verified independently.

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