The Islamic fundamentalist threat to Pakistan is reaching frightening proportions as Taliban militants infiltrate the key city of Peshawar, boldly attacking military headquarters and NATO supply routes and seeking to spread Islamic rule.
Taliban militants who have been tightening their control outside Peshawar for months have for the first time been patrolling inside the city of 3 million, several eyewitnesses told The Washington Times. The militants last week attacked NATO transit terminals on the Ring Road, a key thoroughfare, and kidnapped officials within the city, including a deputy superintendent of police.
Peshawar is a new front line for Pakistan in the struggle to contain the Taliban. Just two hours by car from Islamabad, Peshawar is the capital of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and sits astride the route through which 75 percent of NATO supplies for Afghanistan pass.
Fazal Rahim Marwat, a senior associate of the provincial ruling Awami National Party, acknowledged the challenges and said the provincial government has diverted most of its developmental budget for fiscal 2008-09 to building the capacity of its security forces. He said the situation has deteriorated significantly since a recent agreement by three top Pakistani Taliban commanders to unite.
"What is happening in Peshawar and Khyber Agency is the outcome of this development," he said. "It is a big concern that the Pakistan-Afghanistan route has become quite dangerous for people. ... Recently, the militants have forcibly closed the road, which never happened earlier. Not only NATO, but Pakistan has lost a lot due to the problem with the Pakistan-Afghanistan road, as the $2 billion trade between the two countries has also been significantly reduced."
NWFP Inspector General of Police Malik Naveed told Geo TV on Wednesday that "we have built up our capacity in the last one year, and the strength of our forces have significantly increased, and they are now ready to deliver."
However, he added that to defeat the Taliban in the region, the provincial government needs more weapons, training of elite forces and enhanced salaries for security personnel.
The Obama administration is expected to announce this week a new strategy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan that includes $1.5 billion in nonmilitary aid to Pakistan each year and enhanced training and equipment for counterinsurgency forces.
Recent incidents emphasize the gravity of the threat:
c On Friday , militants seized a deputy superintendent of police, Pervez Khattak, of the Crime Investigation Department, along with his official vehicle, on the Ring Road.
c On the same day, militants belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the largest Pakistani Taliban group, attacked the headquarters for the Khyber Agency in Landi Kotal with rockets and heavy weapons, killing 10 people, most of them civilians. Landi Kotal is just six miles from the main border crossing into Afghanistan known as Torkham.
TTP Khyber Agency spokesman Umar Farooq claimed responsibility for the attack in Landi Kotal and said it was designed to kill security forces and capture equipment.
The TTP spokesman vowed to hit the residence of the governor of the North West Frontier Province if the Taliban can acquire heavy weapons. In other recent incidents:
• The general manager of one of the NATO supply terminals, Waqar Ahmed Mir, who had come from Karachi to assess damage after the attack, also was kidnapped in Peshawar
• About 60 militants attacked Malakand University in Lower Dir, close to the Swat Valley, killing five security personnel. TTP leaders disowned the attack and claimed to have arrested the culprits. However, a university official, who asked not to be named for his own protection, said the institution had received several threats from local Taliban to discontinue classes attended by men and women together and to ban the entry of female students.
• TTP militants installed an FM radio station in the Darra Adam Khel area about 20 miles from Peshawar on the main national highway connecting Peshawar with the port city of Karachi.
Ordinarily, NATO would use this route, but because of growing militant activities, Afghanistan-bound convoys have been bypassing Darra. Increasing Taliban attacks may dash NATO officials' hopes of reviving the route.
The incidents follow the signing of a peace deal in Swat by the regional government with TTP militants last month that included acquiescence to the imposition of Islamic law.
The provincial government has also released 34 Taliban prisoners in Swat, including a commander, Samiullah, in return for eight local officials held by the militants. TTP militants in Swat have demanded the release of 220 jailed members.
The attacks in Dir are also worrisome as Dir is adjacent to Afghanistan and the restive Bajaur tribal agency, believed to be a strong base for al Qaeda.
Unlike Swat, Dir had been peaceful and residents have resisted Taliban efforts to turn the district into another militant stronghold.
Ahmed Hassan Khan, the chief district administrator of Lower Dir, expressed his annoyance with federal and provincial governments, saying that "local residents have been left at the mercy of militants as the local police force is ill-equipped and insufficient."
The TTP, mainly based in remote Waziristan, has tried and failed in the past to control the Khyber Tribal Agency. Its increasing success at attacking NATO supply terminals and convoys is believed to reflect the planning of al Qaeda leaders based in tribal areas, as well as the former commanders of Kashmiri mujahideen, such as Maulana Ilyas Kashmiri.
"The situation is heading alarmingly toward a dangerous direction which would put more pressure on Pakistani and NATO forces," said retired Maj. Tariq Javed, a regional security specialist.
Fears are also being expressed that attacks are aimed at seizing heavy weapons in bulk to enable the Taliban to fight more effectively.
The attacks have escalated at a time when the U.S. is in the process of deploying thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, along with military and nonmilitary supplies for these forces.
Zahid Anwar, an expert on conflict resolution who works at the Area Study Center for Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia and China, said the deteriorating situation in Peshawar "is linked to the overall problem of militancy in the region, and that is why attacks are also conducted against NATO supplies.
"But I think in order to secure the Pakistan-Afghanistan road and NATO supplies, the root problem must be addressed: This is the safeguarding of the interests of Pakistan in Afghanistan. If Pakistani interests in Afghanistan are secured, I think Pakistan could be made to do its bidding wholeheartedly to contain the Taliban and al Qaeda insurgency."