Offensive in Tribal Area Criticized by Key Pakistani Politicians

Posted in Pakistan | 03-Jul-08 | Author: Candace Rondeaux| Source: Washington Post

A Pakistani paramilitary soldier stands guard in a bunker near the Khyber tribal agency.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 2 -- Several Pakistani politicians and local media outlets have started to sharply criticize the government's new offensive against Islamist insurgents, as paramilitary troops on Wednesday continued to press operations in the country's northwest.

"The action is not very fast, not very effective and not very well-oriented," said Lateef Afridi, a top member of the Awami National Party, the dominant political party in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. "People are complaining that such halfhearted measures won't work."

Troops with the paramilitary Frontier Corps on Friday began streaming into the northwestern city of Peshawar and the nearby tribal region known as Khyber Agency. Government officials have reported capturing several towns since then, and they announced Wednesday that Pakistani security forces had arrested at least 31 people and seized several large weapons caches near Bara, the main town in Khyber.

The stated objective of the operation, dubbed "The Right Path" by Pakistani security forces, is ambitious: to blaze a trail through the heart of what is fast becoming Taliban-controlled Pakistan, eradicate insurgent strongholds in tribal areas along the Afghan border, and save Peshawar, a city of 3 million, from falling into the hands of Islamist insurgents.

But only days after the surprise offensive began, it is sharpening divisions between members of Pakistan's newly elected government and highlighting the uneven nature of its strategy against insurgents. In recent weeks, Pakistan had been attempting to broker peace deals in the same region that its forces are now attacking.

Afridi, a lawyer with the provincial Supreme Court bar in Peshawar, was one of several Awami National Party members who has helped broker peace deals with locals tied to the Taliban. He said the paramilitary operation threatens to undermine those deals and does little to address unrest fomented by more powerful Taliban leaders, such as Jalaluddin Haqqani, head of a powerful extremist network based in the tribal area of North Waziristan.

"It won't work unless the government hits the right targets, unless the government strikes at the true leadership of these extremists," Afridi said.

Some Pakistani newspaper editorials have been skeptical if not scathing of the offensive. One, in the English-language daily Dawn, said the effect and scope of the operation are "unclear."

"Is it simply a side issue or part of a larger strategy for establishing the writ of the state wherever it is challenged?" the editorial said. ". . . Indeed, the operation could be deemed a success if the main road to Afghanistan is secured. . . . Still there is no knowing whether such security gains, if they are indeed achieved, can be sustained."

Criticism has also come from leaders of some of Pakistan's conservative political parties, including Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's oldest religious party. While government officials in Islamabad have said the operation was launched at the request of provincial leaders in North-West Frontier Province, confusion and conspiracy theories abound over its architects and objectives.

Liaqat Baloch, vice president of Jamaat-e-Islami, dismissed the offensive as little more than "a drama created by the government of Pervez Musharraf," the Pakistani president, to please his allies in the United States. A longtime critic of the Musharraf administration, Baloch said the decision to launch a security operation in the region should have been discussed in Parliament first.

Leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-N have also complained that they were not consulted in advance by their coalition partner, the Pakistan People's Party.

The paramilitary operation is being closely watched by U.S. officials both in Washington and in the Afghan capital, Kabul, where Afghan and NATO officials have been sounding the alarm about a recent increase in cross-border incursions from Pakistan's tribal areas.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher, in Pakistan to meet with authorities here, said Wednesday that recent clashes between paramilitary troops and insurgents are an important reminder of how quickly Islamist groups have gained ground in northwest Pakistan within the last two years.

Boucher lauded the operation during a news conference in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, calling it "very welcome."

"I think the people up there have had enough harassment by these groups. These threats to Peshawar and Bara and to industry, trucking and shipping -- people have had enough of that," Boucher said.

The operation has also received support from the Pakistan People's Party, the largest party in Parliament.

Farah Ispahani, a party spokeswoman, said the operation was the right response to the looming threats posed by insurgents.

"This operation is important because it is a certainty that the war against terror is Pakistan's greatest challenge at this time, because we are not Taliban and we don't want to become a Taliban state," Ispahani said. "We will fight with everything that we have to ensure that doesn't happen."