Stung by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's suggestion that the Pakistani army was wimping out against Taliban insurgents, the country's military — the country's strongest institution — swung into action 60 miles from the seat of government in Islamabad.
Unfamiliar with counterinsurgency operations, the army laid down withering artillery fire in the Buner district, following the fusillade quickly with more shelling in the scenic Swat Valley, Pakistan's premier tourist destiny.
Since then, about 3 million refugees have fled towns and cities turned to rubble and are huddling in makeshift shelters in 28 camps. Only 1 in 5 is under canvass in the broiling heat.
One of the senior officials in charge of refugees, who spoke on the condition that he not be quoted by name, said he expects the number to climb to 4 million, the largest exodus since partition from India created the state of Pakistan in 1947.
Pakistan can't cope with a refugee crisis of this magnitude. When the most recent major earthquake hit Pakistan in October 2005, killing 75,000 and destroying 400,000 dwellings, the U.S. military played a key role in a major relief effort. The latest upheaval has displaced far more people.
Taliban agents, posing as refugees, have infiltrated the camps, where they proselytize to radicalize those who lost their homes in Swat against the government. The head of the U.N. refugee relief operation in Pakistan and World Food Program personnel estimate burgeoning refugee needs for the next seven months at $540 million.
No sooner were U.N. personnel installed in Peshawar's only safe hotel for Westerners, the five-star Pearl Continental, than a bomb-laden vehicle crashed through the security gate at 10 p.m. As the occupants fired at security guards, the vehicle pulled up in front of the hotel and detonated half a ton of explosives, turning an entire wing to rubble, killing 20, injuring 70.
The suicide bombing was almost identical to a blast that killed 52 and wounded 240 when it destroyed much of the Islamabad Marriott hotel Sept. 20. Foreigners always are advised not to take rooms at the front of the hotel.
The State Department had been negotiating with the hotel's owners to buy the hotel or or sign a long-term lease to house a new U.S. consulate in Peshawar.
One hotel executive who didn't want his name published said: "The country has been taken over by terrorists, and they have a free license to harm wherever they want and the government doesn't seem to exist anymore . . . What sort of parliamentary system do we have when there is no governance and no accountability while crime, terrorism and unemployment are on the increase."
Terrorist bombers have hit every major city in Pakistan at least once since President Asif Zardari succeeded President Pervez Musharraf following the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27, 2007. More than 8,000 have lost their lives in terrorist attacks. On May 27, a few days before Peshawar's hotel attack, car bombers armed with AK-47s and hand grenades killed 30 and wounded 250 at police and intelligence headquarters in Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province.
Army units including 80,000 troops previously stationed on the Indian frontier pressed on to Bannu, a tribal area just outside the Taliban strongholds of North and South Waziristan, where hundreds of tribesmen unexpectedly began battling the Taliban fighters they had long appeased.
The army plan is to launch a combined operation with the 120,000 soldiers now in the tribal areas on the Afghan border and attempt to crush Taliban and al-Qaida strongholds. The army also took on two pro-Taliban tribes — Jani Khel and Baka Khel — and closed their businesses, arresting nearly 100.
Washington has been pleading with the Pakistani government and military to deprive Taliban of its safe havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, giving loyalties there a vigorous shaking.
Clinton's hint about the Pakistani military command's perceived lack of courage gained credence with the brazen kidnapping of several hundred cadets and supervisors at a military college in Ramzak in North Waziristan that was training Frontier Corps volunteers. Pro-Taliban tribes were behind the operation. The cadets were released when the army threatened to attack them.
Taliban guerrillas are well-armed and substantially equipped, with much of the gear stolen from hijacked U.S. supply trucks wending their way from Karachi to the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan. And most tribal elders in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas are of two minds about both the Taliban and the United States. Four of them were in a below-radar visit to Washington this week.
Asked how they viewed America's role in the region, a Mohmand tribal elder told this reporter that America, irrespective of its good intentions, had invaded Afghanistan and they hoped America would leave — "but not too soon."
Taliban operatives have assassinated many tribal elders to consolidate their terror grip the region. Those now in Washington said they use their cell phones to call home "every five minutes to make sure our families are safe."
By week's end, rival Taliban commanders in North and South Waziristan buried the hatchet and united behind what pamphlets called the wishes of "Mujahideen leaders Mullah Mohammad Omar and Sheik Osama bin Laden." They agreed to supply fighters to serve in the "Lashkar al Zil," which is an al Qaeda paramilitary organization.
The army suffered a series of humiliating defeats in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas between 2004 and 2007. Casualties included 1,400 killed and some 4,000 wounded. A score of Pakistan's elite commandos were killed in a single firefight. A couple of helicopters were also forced down. This led to a case-fire of sorts and a peace agreement that, in effect, ceded control to the Taliban.
The army has kept out of the two Waziristans until now. Pakistan's GI Joes bitterly resented having to fight their own countrymen. They also abandoned several forts in South Waziristan.
Now the battle lines have been redrawn. On one side, tens of thousands of well-armed Taliban guerrilla fighters. On the other, a newly motivated Pakistani army. On the outcome hinges the success or failure of the U.S./NATO war in Afghanistan.
As long as Taliban enjoys privileged sanctuaries, the Afghan war is unwinnable. Meanwhile, Pakistan, one of the world's eight nuclear powers, is on the brink of civil war.
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