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Islamists' loss is not a U.S. win in Pakistan

Elections don't signal support for stepped-up attacks on militants.

February 26, 2008|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — When Islamist parties seized political control of one of Pakistan's most devoutly religious regions five years ago, people like Maryam Bibi immediately sensed the danger.

Her fears were well founded. Bibi, a soft-spoken 58-year-old whose nongovernmental organization helps found and run girls schools in the North-West Frontier Province and adjacent tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, swiftly found herself a target because the mullahs don't want girls to be educated.

Her group's offices were bombed. Her fieldworkers were kidnapped at gunpoint. Her schools were attacked. Her life was threatened so many times that she lost count.

On Monday, in a continuation of such violence, four staffers of an organization that helps mothers and children in impoverished northern Pakistan were killed by suspected militants.

But Bibi found some hope in last week's parliamentary elections. Voters across Pakistan turned against the Islamists. Here, they tossed out the governing religious alliance and handed control to a secular party.

Analysts, however, said it would be a big mistake to interpret the election results as a sign that Pakistanis are ready to support an intensified military campaign sought by the U.S. against pro-Taliban and Al Qaeda-linked groups.

More than at any time since before the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, militant organizations have sunk deep roots into Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas. In recent months, they have pushed outward into so-called settled areas under the control of Pakistan's central government, some of them only a few miles from Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province.

'America's war'

To many Pakistanis, the armed confrontation with Islamic radicals remains "America's war," one whose cost in blood has been borne by Pakistani troops with little perceived benefit to this country.

Pakistan's role in President Bush's "war on terrorism" was a significant factor in a separate outpouring of voter fury last week against President Pervez Musharraf, who is seen as far too willing to do the military bidding of the United States.

"Not wanting the Islamists to be in charge of governmental affairs is not the same thing as supporting a U.S.-backed war against the militants, not at all," said Khalid Aziz, a former provincial chief secretary who is now a Peshawar-based analyst.

Recent public opinion surveys bear out that sentiment. A poll by the International Republican Institute released shortly before the election indicated that though public support for groups such as the Taliban had fallen sharply, 89% of respondents did not believe that Pakistan should support a U.S.-led campaign against Islamic extremists.

That sense is particularly strong in areas like the tribal belt and North-West Frontier Province. Homegrown militant groups are drawn from the same ethnic stock as locally recruited paramilitary forces sent in to do battle with them, and many troops recoil from what they see as a fratricidal war. Desertion rates are high.

For Bibi, the election results showed that Pakistanis, even pious ones, do not want to be governed by mullahs, who in turn give free rein to violent Islamic extremists.

"This was an indication, a very clear one, that people want moderation," she said. "No bombing of video stores, no beheadings, no attacking barbers who shave men's beards. And no burning down girls schools."

The big defeat suffered by Islamist parties in the North-West Frontier Province was mirrored in other areas. Nationwide, the main religious alliance went from being a substantial bloc in Pakistan's parliament to a small fringe group, garnering only about 3% of the vote. In the last election, it had taken 11%.

Dialogue with militants

At both the provincial and national levels, the newly prominent political players are emphasizing the need to use military force more judiciously, step up economic development in the impoverished tribal areas and give more weight to tribal based negotiations.

Leaders of the two major opposition parties that have pledged to form a governing coalition -- Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the slain Benazir Bhutto and now head of her Pakistan People's Party, and Nawaz Sharif of the other top vote-getting party -- have spoken of the need to engage militants in dialogue.

So has the Awami National Party, which secured the largest share of votes in the North-West Frontier Province. It is expected to lead the provincial coalition and become a partner in the national one.

The party has long fought for the rights of Pashtuns, the tribe that dominates the rugged territory straddling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Although the fundamentalist Taliban arose from Pashtun areas, the Awami National Party is secular in its outlook.

The party's provincial chairman, Afrasiab Khattak, pointed out that jirgas, or traditional negotiating sessions to hash out grievances, are a central tenet of Pashtun culture.

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