Bombs seen stiffening Pakistan’s resolve on Taliban

[Finally, the shoe is on the other foot and the militants are experiencing the other side of the terrorism equation.  With each bombing the resistance to the violence grows, creating unity of cause with the state, just as American bombs formerly drove the people to support the Taliban resistance.  If the US was a true ally, then it would now let-up on the Predator attacks which were driving the people’s motivation, allowing the Pakistani people to unite in common purpose behind their government.]

Bombs seen stiffening Pakistan’s resolve on Taliban

* Analysts says Taliban trying to undermine state’s determination to fight them, and broad public support the army’s campaign enjoys

ISLAMABAD: A series of bomb attacks in Pakistan aims to undermine the country’s resolve to fight the Taliban but is likely only to strengthen determination to defeat the militants, analysts say.

Pakistan has undertaken its most concerted effort to roll back an expanding Taliban insurgency that has raised fears for the important US ally’s stability, and for the safety of its nuclear weapons.

The army late last month went into action against Taliban who had seized a district only 100 km from the capital after the United States criticised a peace pact as tantamount to abdicating to the Taliban.

This month, the military launched a full-scale offensive to root out the Taliban from their stronghold in nearby Swat.

But the Taliban have responded with eight bomb attacks in towns and cities since late April, three on Thursday in the northwest, a day after 24 people were killed in a suicide gun and bomb attack in the eastern city of Lahore.

Undermine: The Taliban are trying to undermine the state’s determination to fight them, and the broad public support the army’s campaign enjoys, analysts said on Friday.

“This is exactly what the militants are trying to do because they have done it successfully in the past. But things have changed substantially,” security analyst Ikram Sehgal said.

“I don’t think it will undermine the resolve of either the public or the government. They realise that this sort of thing will only escalate if they vacillate any further,” he said. Pakistan signed up to the US-led campaign against militancy after the 9/11 attacks but at best ambivalently.

Pakistan had used these fighters to oppose Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan in the 1980s and later backed the Afghan Taliban. Militants were also used to oppose India in the Indian-held Kashmir.

Pursuit of strategic interests apparently at odds with US aims and mixed messages from the state and media brought muddle.

The Taliban overplayed their hand when, under cover of a controversial peace pact, they denounced the constitution and pushed out of the former tourist valley of Swat towards the capital.

“The Taliban attempt to make their presence felt in an area that a large number of Pakistanis are familiar with, and the way they went about it, the brutality, exposed them and changed opinion,” said Samina Ahmed of the International Crisis Group think-tank.

“They are no longer considered alienated, disaffected Pakistanis who need to be brought into the fold. They’re looked upon much more as criminals who should be brought to justice.”

The violence the Taliban have unleashed demonstrated the extent of the threat they posed and is steeling opposition, Ahmed said.

“It strengthens the government’s position that the terrorists pose a major threat … It’s no longer a remote conflict being fought in FATA,” she said.

The state now had to show it can finish the offensive in Swat quickly and wind up the militant networks. “Their main aim is to weaken public opinion, especially in Punjab,” said retired Brigadier Asad Munir, a former intelligence agency officer, referring to Pakistan’s most prosperous and politically important province, of which Lahore is capital.

“You won’t see this now but if the operation is prolonged then things will start changing. They have got to do it in a week or 10 days,” he said of the Swat operation.

Wavering at this stage would dash the hopes of the public and be disastrous, he said.

‘Taliban state’: “If they stop the operation now then prepare yourself for a Taliban state,” he said.

Threat of disease looms amdist unhygienic conditions

Threat of disease looms amdist unhygienic conditions

A cook makes food for displaced people at the Chota Lahore refugee camp, at Swabi, in northwest Pakistan, Friday, May 29, 2009. The U.N. humanitarian chief issued a desperate appeal for hundreds of millions of dollars to help 2.4 million Pakistanis who have fled the war against Taliban militants, warning that the U.N. can only sustain its current aid efforts for one month. -AP

GENEVA: The UN refugee agency is pitching tents and building toilets for the families hosting an estimated 2 million Pakistanis uprooted by an offensive against the Taliban.

About 200,000 are sheltering in displacement camps and the rest have sought refuge in other villages and regions.

Doctors are treating people for disease, infection and mental disorders, and fear the monsoon season may bring more illness.

‘Many local families have seen their households double or triple overnight,’ UN agency spokesman Ron Redmond said on Friday. ‘The longer that situation goes on, the more difficult it becomes for … the people who are hosting them to maintain the same generosity.’

About 5,000 ‘family tents’ to shelter up to 50,000 people were distributed this week in the Mardan and Swabi districts of the North West Frontier Province, he said.

‘You are going to start seeing these tents being erected in the gardens of houses throughout those districts where families are hosting displaced people,’ Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva, where the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is based.

It is also providing hygiene kits and latrines to households, he said, as well as repairing village water pumps and improving sanitation facilities in mosques, which have also been helping to house and care for the uprooted.

Crowded host villages could also face the threat of disease as a result of low vaccination coverage and unhygienic conditions, the World Health Organisation told the briefing.

WHO spokesman Paul Garwood said that uprooted people without proper shelter also could face added risks during the monsoon season from water-borne diseases such as dysentery.

About 30,000 of those displaced by Pakistan’s conflict are estimated to have severe mental disorders as a result of the stress they have undergone, and this number could double as the fighting stretches on, Garwood said.

Doctors in the region have been treating people for acute respiratory-tract infections, diarrhoea, diabetes, high blood
pressure and asthma, and have reported some outbreaks of measles among the displaced though these appear to have been brought under control, according to the WHO.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is working with the Pakistani Red Crescent Society, also raised concerns about people who have been unable to leave areas of Swat where fighting is continuing.

In the main Swat town of Mingora, ICRC spokesman Florian Westphal said ‘there is no running water, there is no electricity, the district hospital has closed down’.

‘We are continuing our attempts to access that area, including Mingora, as quickly as possible, security permitting.’

Civilians suffer in war against Taliban

Civilians suffer in war against Taliban

‘Both sides were firing mortar shells — an inaccurate weapon that often hits targets other than the intended one.’ — AP

MARDAN: Moabullah dragged the dead in his wheelbarrow for burial behind a girl’s school. There were about 30 bodies, he says, many blown apart in fighting between the Pakistan army and Taliban militants in the Swat Valley.

As Pakistan fights to take back the valley and other parts of the northwest, residents fleeing the fighting are pouring into hospitals and refugee camps. Many, like Moabullah, are telling their stories to anyone who will listen.

Taken together, their accounts — along with those of aid workers and hospital staff — suggest significant civilian casualties, mostly as a result of aerial raids by an army more equipped for conventional war with India than guerrilla warfare with the Taliban.

The Associated Press conducted more than 150 interviews in refugee camps from Mardan to Swabi, at hospitals and basic health units as well as into the battle zone in Buner to seek a picture of the plight of civilians amid the combat.

No independent tallies of the dead have been conducted. Aid groups like the international Red Cross and US-based Human Rights Watch say such a task is impossible until they are able to enter most parts of the roughly 4,000-square-mile area of fighting — about four times the size of Hawaii.

But the very perception among villagers of the causes of widespread killings, injuries and damage to homes could undermine popular support needed for the US-backed Pakistan army campaign and possibly generate sympathy for the insurgency.

‘Civilian casualties are much higher than those of either the army or the Taliban,’ said Ali Bakt, speaking at a hospital in the northwestern capital of Peshawar after fleeing the Taliban mountain stronghold of Peochar.

He said both sides were firing mortar shells — an inaccurate weapon that often hits targets other than the intended one.

Yusuf, a 21-year-old man who fled the fighting in Buner, said he supported the military operation but was fed up with the civilian casualties.

‘It’s good to take action against the Taliban, but there is a problem for civilians,’ said Yusuf, who like many in the Pakistani frontier region offers only one name. He recalled the killings of 10 people whose bodies could not be recovered for three days because of the fighting.

The army is not releasing tolls of civilian casualties, but insists they are minimal and that it is doing everything possible to avoid causing them.

‘In our judgment there are very few casualties,’ military spokesman Gen. Athar Abbas said, emphasizing the main targets are militant training camps and their mountain hide-outs. ‘But even if we are fighting in a populated area, we are using precision strikes.’

At a government-run hospital in the town of Mardan just south of the Swat Valley, Moabullah gave his account of the carnage.

‘I myself put the bodies in the wheelbarrow and took them to a graveyard behind a girls’ school,’ Moabullah said as he held the hand of his dehydrated nine-year-old son, Abu Bakr, who was lying in a rancid-smelling bed.

Intravenous drips from makeshift poles were nourishing the thin boy and, in the next bed, an elderly gentleman who appeared to be malnourished and barely breathing.

The old man’s nephew, Nawab Ali, said they fled their homes in the Swat Valley’s main city of Mingora on May 22, defying an army-imposed curfew. They had run out of food, and water supplies were low.

‘People were coming on foot. We had just reached near the village of Abwa when the army fired on us. Six people were killed and seven others hurt. I saw this myself,’ Ali said. ‘The army was trying to hit the Taliban but hit civilians trying to flee instead.’

Four women were killed including the mother of a four-month-old baby, whose grandfather carried him to safety, according to Ali.

The AP interviews suggest that many casualties occurred after residents defied the curfew to flee their homes, often out of desperation because of little food, water or medical aid. Most villagers blamed the casualties on government aerial assaults and missile attacks. They said they were either caught in the crossfire or targeted for defying the curfew.

But villagers also recounted, particularly in Mingora, Taliban refusing to allow people to leave because the militants wanted to use the civilians as human shields, according to Ali Dayan Hasan, Human Rights Watch’s Pakistan representative.

Hasan said he had a report that militants slit the throat of one man after he said he told soldiers there were no Taliban in his village. The Taliban didn’t believe his account of what he’d said to the army.

The army launched its offensive to oust the Taliban nearly a month ago after a peace deal soured and Taliban streamed out of their Swat Valley stronghold to take over neighbouring regions. So far, the fighting has caused 1.5 million people to flee.

The military claims to have killed more than 1,000 Taliban fighters, a figure that cannot be independently verified, and says more than 50 soldiers have also died.

The International Committee for the Red Cross said it fears the fighting has taken a high toll on civilians but that verification is impossible in most parts of the battle zone. In areas it has been able to enter like Dagar in Buner the Red Cross has treated 240 war wounded, said spokesman Sebastian Brack.

In the emergency room at The Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar, a dirt-smeared admission ledger indicates the majority of the wounded were from Swat, Dargai, Buner and Dir, where the heaviest fighting has taken place.

In one week the hospital received more than 50 victims including a three-year-old, two 13-year-olds and a 10-year-old from Swat.

Most, like sweets salesman Saddar Ali of the Shah Deri area in Swat, had shrapnel wounds while fleeing in defiance of the curfew. Four relatives carried Ali into the emergency room. He was then laid gently on a stretcher covered with a hot, sticky, brown plastic sheet.

Khan Maluk, 50, said most of the sun-baked mud homes in Fizaqat, not far from Mingora, were destroyed in blistering shelling.

‘One of my relatives died and the security guard was killed,’ he said as he watched over his mentally handicapped son, who had an arm wound. The young man rocked back and forth, crying and moaning as his father spoke.

Lying on a bed, his head propped up by a handful of rags, 20-year-old Saddam Hussein — the name is not that unusual in the Muslim world — said he too was wounded when he defied the curfew.

His family had fled their Kalam home in the Swat Valley during a previous army operation against the militants, then returned within days of a peace accord last month. When the new fighting broke out, Hussein, a day labourer, packed up and left, hoping to find work.

Left behind and trapped in their home were his mother, brothers and sisters.

‘It’s been eight days now since I have heard from my family. The last phone call I received, they said they had nothing to eat and to send them something,’ he said. ‘Since then I have had no contact.’

In another small hospital room, more than eight patients crowded into four beds.

Jahan, a middle-aged woman wrapped in a pale green chador, said jets bombed Pir Aman Qilla, just next door to her village in Takhtabund.

‘I could see 10 houses were destroyed,’ Jahan said. ‘But we couldn’t leave our homes. We couldn’t find the dead.’

A patient at the Mardan hospital, Ziaullah Khan, said he heard aircraft overhead in the Buner town of Pir Baba after fleeing his Mingora home.

‘Then we came under fire,’ Khan said. ‘We were using a back road. Five vehicles were hit. One van had 15 people from one family in it. But our van was still running. We had to leave. We couldn’t stop.’

The stories were similar at a dusty, wind-swept refugee camp on the edge of Mardan.

Hayat Khan, of Odigram village in the Swat Valley, said he lost his niece to the fighting: ‘In front of me, two or three were killed by the army,’ he said.

Fazlur Rahman, who fled from Dir, said ‘350 homes in our village was destroyed. You can decide from that how many are dead, and the others can’t move because of the curfew.’

Another refugee, Sirajuddin, said he fled Gumbatmera village in the Swat Valley on May 20 after military jets pounded the area, destroying a large number of homes.

‘I am a local and I know who is there and who was in the houses. For some 24 days it has been going on. I went to seven funerals in two days and one time we all ran away because of the jets. What I know is that in the destroyed houses there are people who are dead. But we can’t get to them.’

Afzal, a 65-year-old wearing a beard dyed bright red with henna, said he saw soldiers fire shells at two vehicles that were defying the curfew to harvest wheat.

‘Maybe they thought they were Taliban,’ he said. ‘We don’t know about army or Taliban — but we know lots of civilians are dying.’

Waziristan militants start mining region: report

Waziristan militants start mining region: report

Given the ongoing military operation in Swat, militants in Waziristan have started mining the area. — AP/File

ISLAMABAD: A latest advisory issued by the Interior ministry to the country’s security agencies reveals that the Taliban and other militants operating in Waziristan have started planting landmines in the area, a BBC report said.

Given the ongoing military operation in Swat, militants, after consulting with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan chief Baitullah Mehsud, have begun mining the area, the advisory says.

Mehsud has ordered Asmatullah Muawiya and Qari Zafar to plant landmines across the South Waziristan tribal region, whereas, different militant groups active in North Waziristan have taken the task on.

Meanwhile, a source in the interior ministry said top police officials in all four provinces had been alerted regarding a possible terrorist plot in the Punjab province. They had also been advised to beef up security in their respective areas, the source told BBC.

The government advisory said militants were planning suicide attacks in different areas of the Punjab province in reaction to the ongoing anti-Taliban operation in Swat and other districts. The fundamental targets in these attacks are likely to be the armed forces and law enforcement institutions.

Stolen US arms being used in Swat: ISPR

Stolen US arms being used in Swat: ISPR

By Iftikhar A. Khan

Major General Athar Abbas addressing a press conference at PID. -APP File Photo

ISLAMABAD: The military on Friday said US weapons stolen from Afghanistan were being used against security forces in Swat and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

While speaking to Dawn, military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas said the terrorists in FATA and Swat were getting material and financial support through the Afghan border and alleged that some hostile foreign agencies were abetting them.

Answering a question about the assertions over the security of strategic assets of Pakistan, he said the United States should stop worrying about the nukes and start thinking about the weapons lost in Afghanistan.

‘We are not surprised if these weapons slip out from Afghanistan and many of them are found in Swat and are being used against our troops’, he remarked.

Giving details on the progress of operation Rahe Rast, he said security forces have recovered a huge quantity of looted and stolen food items and a cache of arms including 12.7 mm guns from four tunnels discovered during search and cordon operations in Peochar.

He said that the food items recovered from tunnels were apparently stolen and looted as these were otherwise not locally available.

He said the packing of the food items also shows that they were part of relief goods meant to reach the people stranded in the areas where the military operation against militants was taking place.

General Athar Abbas said the security forces continued with cordon and search operation and successfully cleared the stronghold of miscreants at Peochar village.

He said that forces have secured Bahrain and the area was under their complete control.

General Athar Abbas also said that 28 miscreants were killed and seven were apprehended in various areas of Swat during exchange of fire, while five soldiers and two civilians were injured.

The military spokesman said cordon and search operations were still continuing in Mingora.

Militants getting Nato arms from across border

[Somebody in Afghanistan is supplying weapons to the Pakistani Taliban.  Care to make any guesses who it is?]

Militants getting Nato arms from across border

Published: May 30, 2009

ARMY spokesman Maj-Gen Athar Abbas has maintained that he sees Swat as a political problem, which can only be partially solved by military intervention and he claimed many of the Taliban’s arms are coming across the border from Afghanistan.
He agreed when asked whether that included Nato weapons, as suggested in recent reports. He said Washington was too focused on the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.
The United States should “stop worrying about the nukes and start worrying about the weapons lost in Afghanistan,” he said in an interview with the CNN.
He described the conflict in Swat as “an existential threat” – a fight for the very existence of Pakistan in its current form. And he seemed acutely aware that the portrayal of that conflict to the West would be critical.
The office of Maj-Gen Athar Abbas has a bank of six flat-screen televisions covering most of one wall, showing all the main international English-language news channels, and several local ones besides, according to a CNN report.
This is one of the rooms where Pakistan’s media war is being fought, and Maj Abbas, the Pakistan Army’s main spokesman, is a key part of the battle.
CNN correspondent Dan Rivers says, “I kid with him that CNN isn’t among the channels on his screens, and he seems slightly hurt, insisting it is. He’s right and I’m wrong – CNN was on a commercial break. In fact, I rather get the impression Abbas, who has become the face of the Army’s operation against Taliban militants in the Swat Valley, watches our coverage closely. One of his subordinates complains about one of our reports – not the accuracy, but something in the general tone,” he adds. The correspondent says whatever Abbas thinks of CNN, he is more than willing to explain how the Pakistan army sees the broad picture as it fights in the Swat Valley.

The current conflict there is intricately linked to the situation in Afghanistan, in his view.
A US government report last month warned that the Pentagon did not have “complete records” for about one-third of the 242,000 weapons the United States had provided to the Afghan army, or for a further 135,000 weapons other countries sent.
The Afghan army “cannot fully safeguard and account for weapons,” the Government Accountability Office found.
When asked how Taliban are well armed the Taliban, the Army spokesman replied they were “very well equipped from the border area.”
He also conspiratorially suggested they also were getting weapons and support from “foreign intelligence agencies.”
When asked what that meant, he smiled and said he can’t elaborate – declining to repeat the speculation in the press here that India may be somehow involved in stirring up trouble on Pakistan’s northwestern border.
But the very suggestion plays to a military strategist’s nightmare scenario – the Pakistan Army bogged down in the northwest, unable to focus on the disputed province of Kashmir, a key element of its conflict with India, according to the CNN.
The military wants to get done in Swat as soon as possible, but Maj-Gen Abbas acknowledged troops would be there for some time. He estimated that 10 to 15 per cent of the Taliban there were foreign fighters: “Well-trained Arabs, Afghans, with a sprinkling of central Asians and North Africans.”
He also said there were Yemenis, Saudis and Uzbeks fighting, as Pakistan had become the destination du jour of the international jihadist, with Arabs in commanding positions and the other foreign fighters bringing in expertise.
He said he thought that perhaps Mingora, the main town at the gateway to the Swat Valley, might be secured in 48 hours, but it might be much, much longer before the area was totally pacified.
“First you have to disarm the Taliban and then re-establish the writ of government,” he said.
He admitted that Swat and neighbouring Bajaur districts “were lost to the state” and that now “we are paying in blood for areas we had already occupied.” Now, he said, the Army is set for a long fight. “We are prepared for that – we are mentally prepared.”
But, according to the CNN, they are also prepared for the conflict to be taken to other parts of Pakistan. An ISI building was attacked in Lahore this week. The Taliban claimed they carried out the attack and Maj Abbas said the security services expected more attacks.
The broadcast says there is also the risk of the Taliban using the mass exodus of civilians from the Swat Valley as cover to penetrate other towns and cities. Already almost three million people have flooded out of what was once a tranquil tourist destination, and the military fears that among the mass movement of humanity there will be those plotting to strike at the heart of Pakistan’s cities.
“It’s a very big issue — a serious concern,” Abbas said.

And now psywar

And now psywar

Published: May 30, 2009

AS Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan came under terrorist attacks on Thursday killing 13 and injuring 90 unsuspecting victims, a Tehrik Taliban Pakistan leader threatened to attack more cities inside Punjab, calling on the population to leave them, thus signaling the beginning of psychological warfare, or psywar.
The surge in attacks is an expression of desperation. It indicates that the situation could become worse before it starts improving. Hakimullah Mehsud has not only threatened to conduct attacks inside Lahore, Multan, and Rawalpindi, but also the federal capital. His statement, however, is indicative of the militants’ weak spots. While he has claimed the attack in Lahore was motivated by the military operation in Swat, the fact that it came weeks after the operation had started, and only after tanks and heavy artillery started rolling into South Waziristan, shows that despite the claims of solidarity every militant group is for itself in the ultimate analysis. TTP spokesman Muslim Khan’s intercept, pleading for help, reveals the same weakness. If one was to accept Hakimullah Mehsud’s statement that the TTP was “looking for this (Lahore) target for a long time,” what one would conclude is that it is finding it increasingly difficult to penetrate the Punjab heartland. Despite the fact that the police is not trained or equipped to fight the terrorists, it succeeded in barring the terrorists from entering the ISI headquarters. The Army, which so far has lost 90 soldiers, including officers, during the Swat operation, is fully determined to face the challenge as General Kayani’s statement on Thursday indicates.

The initiation of psywar by the militants is meant to spread panic among the population and weaken the government’s resolve to fight. Thankfully, Pakistan is run by an elected government and, unlike the Musharraf administration, is dealing with the situation with the full support of Parliament. What is more, the PPP and the PML(N) are finally on the same page. The military is wholeheartedly carrying out the policy devised by the government. What is needed is that the security agencies, which are increasingly under attack, improve their efficiency and fully concentrate on eliminating the threat faced by the country. Meanwhile, provincial intelligence agencies have to be provided the sophisticated equipment that they have been clamouring for to intercept messages between terrorists. Their demand for electronic gadgets which can help them detect explosives from a distance, to be better able to ward off attacks, should also be met. The need for cooperation between the federal and the provincial governments was never so dire as it is today.