Pakistan Braces for a Backlash After Taliban Raid

An air strike on a religious school kills 80, raising prospects for new unrest directed at Musharraf.

A Pakistani military air strike on a pro-Taliban religious school in the country's volatile North West Frontier Province has set off a flurry of protest in Pakistan, and threatens to stoke the fires of local insurgency against the central government. It has also raised questions about the target and authors of the assault.

Helicopters attacked a madrassah near the town Khar just before dawn, drowning out the muezzin's call to prayer with a barrage of bullets and missiles. Within two hours the main building of the seminary had collapsed, killing some 80 men inside, according to local witnesses. The madrassah was reputed to be a refuge for local and Afghan Taliban, and its firebrand leader, Maulvi Liaqatullah — believed to have been killed in attack, according to army spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan — was a vocal Taliban supporter.

Although the Pakistani military immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, rumors abound in the region that the U.S. may have had a hand in its planning. The lawless region running along the southeastern border with Afghanistan has long been a haven for Islamist militants. A large number of al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters retreated there from Afghanistan following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and the fugitives currently sheltering there are believed to include Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri. Last January, a botched U.S. air strike in Damadola, two miles from Khar, was meant to take out al Zawahiri; instead it got only his son-in-law, and some 16 civilians. Resentment over that attack is still running high, and many question why the Pakistani military would strike a madrassah, the sole educational opportunity available in the impoverished district — particularly on a day when they were due to open peace talks with the area's tribal elders and militants.

But according to Sultan, the Pakistani army had been monitoring suspected militant activity at the madrassah for some time. "Yes, the compound was originally a seminary," he says. "But no religious activities were taking place, just militant activities. We gave a warning to the cleric to shut these activities down, but he continued. We can have no tolerance for these kind of activities."

The raid comes at a delicate time for President Pervez Musharraf, who has come under mounting pressure from the U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan to crack down on Taliban infiltration from Pakistani territory, despite the popularity of their cause among the local tribesmen. Just two days earlier, Liaqatullah had spoken at a rally where more than 5,000 armed men chanted anti-American and anti-Musharraf slogans, and pledged to wage jihad until every single foreign soldier had been evicted from Afghan soil.

Peace talks had been scheduled to begin Monday between tribal elders, militants and the military in pursuit of an agreement on the lines of the one concluded in September with militants in North Waziristan, in which they pledged to stop cross-border activities and attacks on government forces in exchange for those forces withdrawing from the area.

"Any kind of peace deal is now out of the question," says Talat Masood, a retired Lieutenant General who now works as a military analyst in Islamabad. "Pakistan is sliding into the same situation as we have in the southern regions of Afghanistan. Musharraf is losing control." He points out that the attacks will boost the political fortunes of the conservative Islamist opposition parties, and could even cost Musharraf support among moderates. Siraj ul-Haq, a finance minister for the North-West Frontier Province, has resigned in protest at what he termed an "insane attack," calling for nationwide protests. "People are very angry," says Bajaur resident Wahid Shah. "People are protesting against America and against Musharraf. It's very tense over here."

But General Sultan says the attack was necessary to prepare the ground for fruitful peace talks. "Some of these militants are a hard nut to crack," he says. "They may not come easily to negotiation. We need to show them what is at risk." The agreement in North Waziristan, he points out, was also preceded by several months of military activity — in which the Pakistani military lost some 800 men, about the same number of militants it was able to capture during the operation. But few outside of Pakistan have hailed the Waziristan deal as a success. NATO leaders in Afghanistan, for example, have reported a significant uptick in Taliban attacks since it was signed.

Even in Pakistan, many fear that the military withdrawal from the region has only consolidated the militants' power. "A peace deal alone is not enough," says analyst Masood. "It will take 10 to 15 years to transform the mindset of these people. You need to offer them an alternative paradigm, give them something to live for." In a region with few roads, little infrastructure and nominal government presence, however, it is nearly impossible to offer a viable alternative to the region's militant traditions. Local leaders are fiercely resistant to any kind of government intervention, and in many areas have set up parallel courts to administer their own brutal form of justice, just as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

The madrassah attack will likely harden local resistance to any kind of deal with the Pakistani government, says Masood. "Even if they did kill 100 militants instead of madrassah students, all they have achieved is creating another 10,000 militants. This war will not be won by military means."

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