- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan’s wresting control of key areas from the Taliban has given enough “breathing room” to allow U.S.-Pakistan relations to shift focus to energy and economic development, although security remains a vital concern, Washington’s special envoy to the region said Sunday.

Pakistan suffers from a chronic shortage of energy and millions suffer prolonged power cuts every day because demand for electricity far outstrips supply. The unstable power supply has damaged local industry, with factories unable to keep up production levels and small businesses struggling to cope, and has sometimes triggered riots.

“We shifted the focus deliberately and consciously today to the issue that every Pakistani tells me is on their minds more than any other - [the] economy and above all energy,” envoy Richard C. Holbrooke said after meeting with Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. “We are concerned with more than just the western tribal areas - although those remain a central concern.”

Mr. Holbrooke, who is expected to visit Pakistan’s commercial capital of Karachi in coming days, gave no details but said projects would be announced later.

Washington had long wanted Islamabad to crack down on militants with strongholds along the western border with Afghanistan, a rugged and lawless tribal region where the Pakistani Taliban are thought to be sheltering al Qaeda leaders and helping to plan attacks on U.S. troops across the border.

The military has been winding down an offensive against the Taliban that began in late April around the northern Swat Valley and led to about 2 million people being displaced. The offensive marked a turn in Pakistan’s anti-terrorism fight in part because a Taliban takeover of the alpine enclave - which once boasted Pakistan’s only ski resort - had become a symbol of the extremists’ expansion.

The displaced have been returning home and the area has been largely secured, although the military says it still faces pockets of Taliban resistance.

As if to underline this issue, a suicide bomber blew himself up when security forces encircled him during a search operation in Swat’s main town of Mingora on Sunday night, lightly wounding four soldiers, the army said. Another seven militants were killed during the search, the military said in a statement.

It was the second suicide blast in two days in Swat; an explosion killed five and wounded several more in the town of Khawaza Khela on Saturday.

The military said it would impose an all-day curfew in Mingora on Monday, when Mr. Holbrooke planned to travel there.

Mr. Holbrooke said that despite recent successes, there were still problems.

“Now there’s much more breathing room. But I stress … we all know the underlying problems are still to be dealt with,” Mr. Holbrooke said.

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