Pakistan asks public to support anti-Taliban drive
By Asif Shahzad
ISLAMABAD — Pakistani officials are moving swiftly to use the suicide bombing of a luxury hotel in their campaign to build public support for military offensives against the Taliban, saying the country is at war.
The militants, meanwhile, appeared unwilling to let up: Dozens attacked three army bases in a tribal region where Pakistan’s Taliban commander is based, triggering a shootout that left 20 insurgents and three soldiers dead early Thursday, intelligence officials said.
The clashes in South Waziristan raised the odds that Pakistan would launch an offensive there, something U.S. officials would like to see.
Past offensives against Islamist militants have resulted in backlashes as many Pakistanis concluded the only way to end the bloodshed and destruction was for the weak central government to strike a deal with the extremists — which it did as recently as this past spring in the Swat Valley, only to have an emboldened Taliban violate the agreement by seizing an adjacent district.
The army has since launched a major offensive in Swat again, to generally broad public support that the government wants to bolster.
"This is a war, but the people of this country will not bow to the cowardly acts of terrorists. People are now seeing the real face of those who have been exploiting them in the name of Islam," North West Frontier Province senior minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour Bilour told reporters Wednesday.
Tuesday’s attack on the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar killed at least nine people, a week after the Taliban threatened major attacks in large cities to avenge an army offensive to reclaim Swat.
"We will fight this war ’til our last breath," Bilour said. "They cannot break us. The whole nation is united."
Pakistan Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira agreed: "The whole nation is united and backing the government and army in the fight against terrorists," he said in a statement.
That is an overstatement, at least in the rugged, lawless tribal belt where the Taliban and al-Qaida have carved out a sanctuary of entrenched strongholds with at least tacit blessings from tribal elders.
One of those sanctuaries is South Waziristan, the main base for Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud.
In recent weeks, militants and security forces have clashed several times in that region along the Afghan border, but the military won’t say if it will be the target of an offensive after Swat.
The coordinated attacks early Thursday occurred on bases in Jandola, Chakmalai and Splitoi towns in South Waziristan, said two intelligence officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
No army spokesman could immediately be reached to confirm the incident.
Interviews with people on the streets of Pakistan’s three largest cities — Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore — found nothing but contempt for the Taliban.
Mohammad Zubair, 32, a human resources employee at a Lahore construction company, called the Islamic militants "a mafia of criminals."
"They do not have anything to do with Islam. They are just exploiting our religion to mislead our youth," he said. "They are killing innocent people. They deserve death wherever they are."
Moosa Ahmad, 40, a shopkeeper in Karachi, said he did not want such attacks on urban civilian targets to deter the army from pursuing the Taliban.
"These strikes should not make any difference, and the government must expedite its offensive," he said. "They should be chased wherever they are and wherever they go."
Tariq Khan, 26, a Peshawar teacher, lamented that the hotel blast killed two U.N. workers — one from Serbia, the other from the Philippines — and wounded four others.
"They were helping us, and what we gave them was death, wounds and fear," Khan said. "I am sure that such attacks will only serve for more hatred and more opposition to those involved in these terrorist attacks."
In Washington, the Obama administration’s special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, said Wednesday that he was observing "the slow emergence of a consensus behind the government’s actions."
Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political and defense analyst, said overall sentiment was more nuanced, but that it appeared support for the Taliban was waning.
"Among ordinary Pakistanis, the state of mind is changing only to the extent that they are more afraid. And now what do you do after being afraid?" Rizvi said.
"Some people will start saying stop the operations and others will argue that you should take firm action against them. While ordinary people might sometimes have contradictory thinking, overall I would say the balance is tilting against the Taliban."
The exact death toll from the blast at the Pearl hotel remained elusive Wednesday.
While some media reports said up to 19 people were killed, North West Frontier Province Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain told reporters that officials had only been able to confirm 11 or 12 dead, including two or three sets of remains that are believed to be from the attackers.
Peshawar district coordination officer Sahibzada Anis also said nine people were killed in addition to the attackers.
"The inflated figure which I am also hearing from different channels is not accurate," he told The Associated Press .
Peshawar, with a population of 2.2 million people, is the largest city in Pakistan’s troubled northwest.