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Pakistanis Debate Role In Combating Militants

Pakistani tribesmen gather over the destroyed residence of suspected Taliban militant Omar Daraz after a U.S. missile strike in Miranshah, the main town in the restive North Waziristan district,  Oct. 12.
Thir Khan
AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani tribesmen gather over the destroyed residence of suspected Taliban militant Omar Daraz after a U.S. missile strike in Miranshah, the main town in the restive North Waziristan district, Oct. 12.
Sarfaraz Khan, 26, fled with his family from Bajaur, in Pakistan's tribal belt, because of the fighting there.
Phil Reeves/NPR /
Sarfaraz Khan, 26, fled with his family from Bajaur, in Pakistan's tribal belt, because of the fighting there.

Pakistan's parliamentarians are gathered in their capital city behind a dense wall of troops, concrete barriers and razor wire to tackle an issue that could hardly be more important for the future of the country they're struggling to rule.

Their discussions are secret, yet they are of profound interest to Pakistan's 165 million inhabitants and the world beyond, especially the U.S.

They focus on one core question: How is Pakistan to handle the war that has crept over the Hindu Kush mountains from Afghanistan and taken firm root on its soil, claiming thousands of lives?

The group is trying to reach a consensus over what to do about thousands of Islamist militants who have taken control of parts of northwest Pakistan and — in the view of some analysts — are now threatening the very existence of the 61-year-old Pakistani state.

The stakes could hardly be higher. Pakistan's economy is collapsing. Violence is spiraling. A deep sense of foreboding is setting in among the country's frightened and beleaguered public.

Yet consensus is very difficult to achieve in Pakistani politics. And this issue provokes particularly strong feelings: Pakistanis disagree among themselves over whether this is really their war.

A Byproduct Of War In Afghanistan?

Many Pakistanis — including opposition parliamentarians — see the rise of violent Islamist militancy not as Pakistan's problem but as a byproduct of Washington's war in Afghanistan. They believe the problem would be solved by the departure of the U.S. forces and their allies from the region.

The same people accuse their own government of making Islamist extremism worse by succumbing to pressure from the U.S. and resorting to the use of military force against the militants. They think this strategy is counterproductive.

They level the same accusation at the U.S. when it uses CIA spy drones to fire missiles at suspected militant hideouts inside Pakistani territory, sometimes killing civilians in the process. Such attacks are becoming more frequent.

The Islamabad meeting is a joint session of Pakistan's two houses of Parliament. The session began last week and has received classified briefings from Pakistani military and intelligence officials.

It is reasonable to assume these officials have painted a grim picture.

They will have described a conflict against an enemy that is using tactics from a playbook written in Iraq and Afghanistan. The militants kidnap, plant roadside bombs, assassinate government officials and occasionally attack trucks carrying supplies across Pakistan to NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Suicide bombings have become a primary weapon; these have killed some 1,200 people in Pakistan since the middle of last year.

Tribal Zone Conflict

The officials briefing Parliament will also have shown how this conflict is centered in — but not confined to — the northwest of the country, particularly the tribal lands in the mountain range that runs along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pakistani tribal belt is an area of some 10,500 square miles — about the size of Massachusetts — where several million ethnic Pashtuns live largely beyond the writ of any government.

The Pakistani government does not allow foreign correspondents to enter the tribal areas, although the Pakistani military occasionally takes journalists into the war zone for brief visits under escort. So acquiring an accurate and independent picture is not easy.

However — as NPR reports in this third piece in our series — it is possible to get insight by talking to some of the several hundred thousand people who have left the tribal belt to escape the fighting.

They include Sarfaraz Khan, 26, a cobbler. He recently moved to the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar with his three small children and a crowd of relatives.

Khan is a Pashtun from Bajaur, at the northern end of the tribal belt. This summer, under U.S. pressure, Pakistan's military launched an offensive there to drive out the Pakistani Taliban and their allies. The civilian death toll is believed to be high.

Khan made the decision to leave Bajaur after the Pakistani air force began bombarding the area around his village, which was under the control of the local Taliban. Pakistani jets and helicopters struck every day, in the morning and the afternoon, he told NPR. His children were terrified: "They cry; they scream. They stay inside their home. They really suffer so much."

Dispensing Swift Justice

Khan says when the Taliban first came to his village about a year ago, they began sorting out long-standing local disputes, using their own fundamentalist reading of religious law. He said many of the tribal people — conservative religious Pashtuns — were glad to see the Taliban dispensing swift justice. "At first [the Taliban] were few in numbers, then people started joining them because they were in line with Islam."

Khan says the Taliban does not enjoy everyone's support. Some tribal people have formed armed militias — known as "lashkars" — to oust the militants from the area. But the Pakistani army is disliked even more.

As the sense of crisis deepens, few in Pakistan seem optimistic that a national consensus can be reached on the militants. Much depends on the position taken by the new president, Asif Ali Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December.

Zardari has declared himself a "friend of America"; he says he is determined to wipe out Islamist terrorism, blaming the militants for his wife's death.

Yet he has also been talking for some time about a more complex solution — a three-pronged strategy, combining military force with peace talks (under specific conditions) and economic development. Elements of this have been tried in the recent past — for example, negotiations. It hasn't yet succeeded. But nor has war.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.