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

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

“People are sick of violence and conflict in our region,” Khattak said. “We oppose actions and policies that lead to war.”

At the same time, he was harshly critical of the previous provincial government for turning a blind eye to the militants’ growing strength and brazenness, which he personally experienced at close range.

This month, as Khattak was preparing to address a campaign rally outside the northwestern town of Charsadda, a suicide bomber struck, killing nearly 30 people. Khattak, seated only yards from the blast, still has difficulty hearing in his right ear.

“Still, I believe the extremists are only a tiny minority,” he said.

Concern over truces

Western military officials concur that a successful strategy against the insurgents must include elements other than military force, such as more funding for education, job training and social welfare.

But they do not want to see a repeat of past truces between the militants and the Pakistani government, which they believe gave insurgent groups a priceless opportunity to rebuild networks broken by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Perhaps sensing fresh opportunity, senior Pakistani militant leader Baitullah Mahsud on Sunday declared willingness to engage in dialogue with the new governing coalition.

“Those kinds of agreements got us nowhere -- got us worse than nowhere,” a Western military official said of past accords, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss policy matters.

Still, he and others said the new Pakistani government’s as-yet-undetermined strategy to counter the militants would have greater public legitimacy than Musharraf’s, and that is considered a plus.

Musharraf, a former general, came to power in a 1999 coup and bolstered his power through various undemocratic means, such as an election in 2002 that international observers said was heavily rigged. When he took dramatic steps against the militants, such as ordering government commandos to storm a radical mosque in the capital last summer, the insurgents painted it as the autocratic action of a dictator.

Heading into last week’s elections, violence was much on the minds of voters. Suicide bombings last year, including the one that killed Bhutto, accelerated to a rate of about one per week, far outpacing the that of the previous year.

In the 2002 elections, Islamists here rode a wave of anti-American sentiment over the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. But by the time this vote rolled around, discontent over joblessness, crumbling infrastructure and corruption had come to the fore in the only province the Islamists governed.

“They only lined their own pockets -- they did nothing for the people. So I am not sorry to see them go,” said Anwar Khan, a nut seller in Peshawar’s Old City. He said, though, that he hoped the new government would respect people’s wishes that Islam play a strong role in daily life.

Even activists who have put their lives on the line in Pakistan’s northwest say they are willing to compromise with religiously conservative elements -- and sometimes with militants themselves -- to further long-term goals.

Bibi, the advocate for girls schools, was registered to vote in her home village outside Peshawar. But tribal elders there, as in many towns and villages in the northwest, decided that no women would be allowed to cast ballots.

Rather than fight the ruling, she acquiesced.

“I believe in my work. I believe in educating girls. I believe that will make a real change in our society,” she said.

“But we cannot ignore that these militants came from among us. We cannot just crush them,” Bibi said. “We have to find a way to make them see our point of view.”

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laura.king@latimes.com


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