The Downward Spiral Pakistan Consumed by Violence as Taliban Power Grows

The Taliban's power in Pakistan continues to grow and it now has entire towns under its control. Under US pressure, the Pakistani army is fighting the Islamists -- with limited success. Pakistani intelligence says the Americans are doing more harm than good.

By and Sohail Nasir

Back when Qari Zainuddin still believed that he could win this war, he stood in front of his office in the Pakistani town of Dera Ismail Khan, surrounded by masked men, each of them with an AK-47 at the ready. A few white doves cooed as the sun blazed down on the flat brick buildings.

Zainuddin, 26, a powerfully built Taliban commander, was wearing a shimmering, gold-colored cap over his dark hair and a Palestinian scarf wrapped loosely around his shoulders. He was speaking into the microphones of the journalists he had invited.

He wrinkled his brow and said quietly that Baitullah Mehsud was no holy warrior, but just an "ordinary terrorist." 2007 Mehsud, who was chosen as the leader of the Pakistani Taliban by an alliance of militant Islamist groups and who has committed the largest number of attacks on civilians, soldiers and security forces in his home country, had ordered his men to kill more than 40 people in a mosque. He wants to bring down the government in Islamabad and transform Pakistan into an emirate, just as the Taliban across the border intend to do in Afghanistan. Now Zainuddin was saying that he and his followers, of which he claimed there were 3,000, were going to "destroy" Mehsud.

Qari Zainuddin was dead two days later. A bodyguard, one of Mehsud's mercenaries who had infiltrated Zainuddin's ranks, shot him in his sleep.

The news of Zainuddin's death spread like wildfire through Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. The implicit message was that the same fate would await anyone who defies Mehsud or even goes as far as to align himself with the Pakistani army.

Aggressive Leadership

The Taliban has become so powerful in Pakistan that it can afford internecine battles for dominance. At the same time, the Pakistani army, fired up by the US government, is waging a war against the religious militants in the rugged, inhospitable and hard-to-control border region in the northwest. Islamabad's military offensive has prompted the Taliban to withdraw, and yet it is also expanding its radius deep into the country's interior, reaching as far as major cities like Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad.

Day after day, they attack and kill police officers and soldiers, and day after day suicide bombers blow themselves up in markets and mosques. They have committed 218 attacks in the North West Frontier Province this year alone. The death toll from terrorist attacks in Pakistan is now higher than the number of civilian deaths in the war across the border in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has become synonymous with the threat of terrorism to the world. Americans like Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are urging the government in Islamabad to practice "aggressive leadership," and they want the Pakistani army to crush and kill the extremists on Pakistani soil. The United States sees the prolonged offensive by Pakistani armed forces in the Swat Valley as the prelude to a long and bloody conflict.

The new strategy stems from General David Petraeus, the head of United States Central Command. As he did in Iraq, Petraeus, a cool-headed intellectual, intends to stop the "spiral downward" in the war zone which American strategists are now referring to as AfPak. If Petraeus has his way, the Taliban and al-Qaida will also be defeated in Pakistan, which they repeatedly use as a safe haven after fighting in Afghanistan. For more than two months, the Pakistani army has been battling a leader of the radical Islamic Taliban in the Swat Valley.

In return, the Taliban is expanding the combat zone, leaving a trail of blood with attacks across the entire country, from Kashmir in the north to Karachi in the south. Pakistan is not collapsing, but it is being consumed by violence and undermined by the fear that anyone, at any time, can fall victim to the next attack.

Maulana Hassan Jan, a religious scholar from Peshawar near the Afghan border, resisted the orgy of violence that is destroying his country. He issued a fatwa against suicide attacks, calling them "un-Islamic." The Taliban killed him. Maulana Sarfraz Naeemi, the prominent director of a Koran school who had also spoken out against the militant extremists, was killed in a suicide bombing.

Keeping the Demons in Check

No other politician has more influence in the religious arena than Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman, the head of the powerful Islamist party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). He knows Taliban leader Mullah Omar and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden personally, and it is said that there are no extremists Rehman could not get in contact with if he wanted to.

With his bright orange turban and rotund stomach under his loose-fitting shirt, Rehman looks like a grand vizier in an old painting. He receives visitors in his parliamentary office in Islamabad, with its expansive leather armchairs and red teak furniture.

It's been a long time since there was a government in Pakistan where the JUI was not disproportionately represented. Even though the JUI secured only 2.2 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary election, it has three cabinet ministers in the current administration.

Rehman's power is derived from a network of hundreds of Koran schools run by members of the JUI, where poor children not only learn to read and write, but also learn about the obligation to wage jihad.

Every government has bought itself Rehman's favor with attractive posts and costly gifts, hoping that the popular cleric would keep his demons in check.

If he raised his voice against Baitullah Mehsud, it would have an impact, but he would also be placing himself in danger. Instead, he downplays Mehsud and his forces by portraying them as a couple of hooligans up to mischief in the country's northwest.

Rehman is from Dera Ismail Khan, a city in the northwest of the country. There, in the tribal areas, the al-Qaida leadership around the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri are believed to be hiding.

Dera Ismail Khan is the gateway to South Waziristan, the last major crossroads for insurgents and smugglers, traders and nomads before Pakistan's tribal areas, which, though officially under federal administration, have in truth never been under the government's control. Six hours by car from Islamabad, the city of 70,000 lies on the banks of the Indus River, at the intersection of three provinces: Punjab, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province.


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