Taliban Stir Rising Anger of Pakistanis
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - A year ago, the Pakistani public was deeply divided over what to do about its spreading insurgency. Some saw the Taliban militants as fellow Muslims and native sons who simply wanted Islamic law, and many opposed direct military action against them.
But history moves quickly in Pakistan, and after months of televised Taliban cruelties, broken promises and suicide attacks, there is a spreading sense - apparent in the news media, among politicians and the public - that many Pakistanis are finally turning against the Taliban.
The shift is still tentative and difficult to quantify. But it seems especially profound among the millions of Pakistanis directly threatened by the Taliban advance from the tribal areas into more settled parts of Pakistan, like the Swat Valley. Their anger at the Taliban now outweighs even their frustration with the military campaign that has crushed their houses and killed their relatives.
"It's the Taliban that's responsible for our misery," said Fakir Muhammed, a refugee from Swat, who, like many who had experienced Taliban rule firsthand, welcomed the military campaign to push the insurgents out.
The growing support for the fight against the Taliban could be an important turning point for Pakistan, whose divisions about its Islamic militancy seemed at times to imperil the state itself.
But it is an opportunity that could just as quickly vanish, analysts and politicians warn, if Pakistan's political leaders fail to kill or capture senior Taliban leaders, to help an estimated three million who have been displaced, or to create a functioning government in areas long ignored by the state. "This is a profound moment in our history," said Javed Iqbal, the top bureaucrat in the North-West Frontier Province, the area of fighting. "My greatest fear is whether there is sufficient realization of this among people who make decisions."
On Wednesday, in an audiotape, Osama bin Laden specifically cited the fighting in Swat and Pakistan's tribal areas, blaming the Obama administration for the campaign and for sowing "new seeds to increase hatred and revenge on America."
American officials are keenly aware of the potential of the refugee crisis to spawn militancy. Less than a quarter of the $543 million the United Nations has requested for refugees has arrived, according to Pakistan's Foreign Ministry.
On Thursday, Richard C. Holbrooke, the American special envoy, visited refugee tents as part of a three-day trip to spread the message that the United States was trying to help. The Obama administration had requested an additional $200 million, he said, noting that it was providing more aid than all other countries combined.
Even so, anti-American feelings still run high in Pakistan. Many Pakistanis blame the United States and the war in Afghanistan for their current troubles.
Pakistanis have long supported the Taliban as allies to exert influence in neighboring Afghanistan. Unlike Afghans, they have never lived under Taliban rule, and have been slow to absorb its dangers.
But that is changing, as the experience of those Pakistanis who have now lived under the Taliban has left many disillusioned.
Over more than a year of fighting, the militants moved into Swat, by killing or driving out the wealthy and promising to improve the lives of the poor. Finally, the military agreed to a truce in February that all but ceded Swat to the Taliban and allowed the insurgents to impose Islamic law, or Shariah.
The prospect of Shariah was alluring, said Iftikhar Ehmad, who owns a cellphone shop in Mingora, the most populous city in Swat, because the court system in Swat was so corrupt and ineffective. But the Taliban's Shariah was not the benign change people had hoped for. Once the Taliban took power, the insurgents seemed interested only in amassing more, and in April they pushed into Buner, a neighboring district 60 miles from Islamabad.
"It was not Shariah, it was something else," Mr. Ehmad said, jabbing angrily at the air with his finger in the scorching tent camp in the town of Swabi. "It was scoundrel behavior."
Daily life became degrading. A woman was lashed in public, and a video of her writhing in pain and begging for mercy stirred wide outrage. Taliban bosses ordered people to donate money. Cosmetics shops and girls' schools were burned.
By the time the military entered Swat last month, local people began leading soldiers to tunnels with weapons and Taliban hiding places in hotels, the military said. "These people, six months back, weren't willing to share anything," said a military official who was involved in planning the campaign. "Gradually they've been coming out more and more into the open."
There has also been a change in other parts of Pakistan, like Punjab, the most populous province, where people used to see the problem of militancy as remote, said Rasul Baksh Rais, a professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences. Now the province has become a target of suicide attacks, most recently last week in Lahore. Mr. Rais cited changes in news coverage of the military campaign and a strong stand by the political parties, even some of the religious ones, as evidence of the shift. "The tables are turned against the Taliban now," he said. "They are marginalized."
But the underlying causes that have allowed the Taliban to spread - poverty, barely functioning government, lack of upward mobility in society - remain. Mr. Iqbal is now working frantically to fill those gaps. New judges have recently been identified for Swat, he said, and about 3,000 new police officers will be selected this week.
The Pakistani military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss future operations, said troops would have to remain in Swat for at least six months. Support for the Taliban has not evaporated entirely.
Early this week, on a searing hot street in Mardan, a town south of Swat that has absorbed many of the people churned up in the fighting, a tall man with a long beard, Muhammed Tahir Ansari, grew angry when asked whether the refugees approved of the military operation. "It is illogical to think that people would be happy about this tense situation," he said curtly.
He was from a charity run by Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the principal religious parties that tacitly support the Taliban, and was directing a frenzied effort to distribute water and hand-held fans.
The government, meanwhile, was nowhere in sight.
Irfan Ashraf contributed reporting from Swabi, Pakistan, and Mardan, Pakistan.