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Is the Taliban winning in Pakistan?

October 31, 2009

PESHAWAR – For Rubina Ajmal, life has come to a standstill since Wednesday’s car bombing that targeted women buying clothes, bangles and cosmetics in a crowded market in Pakistan’s north-western city of Peshawar, killing more than 100 people.

Expecting few women to leave the relative safety of their homes in the coming days and weeks, Rubina, 35, has decided to shut down her small beauty salon – her only way of making a living since her husband died in a traffic accident three years ago.

“Everyone is scared in this city. No one knows when and where the next bomb will explode,” she said. “It’s no use to stay open when no customer is going to visit the parlour.”

Markets, parks and restaurants in Peshawar, the capital of North West Frontier Province (NWFP), have been deserted since early this month when the Taliban vowed to avenge the military offensive in their South Waziristan stronghold – a mountainous district near the Afghan border.

The only flourishing businesses in Peshawar now are coffin-making and pharmaceuticals, the local traders say sarcastically. Around 170 people died and hundreds more were injured in four major bombings in October.

For several international airlines, the town is already off the map. Except for journalists, hardly a Westerner dares to visit Peshawar, which was once called ‘The city of flowers’.

The Taliban seems to be winning, at least for now, by instilling fear in the general public while the government might not be able to announce a final victory in South Waziristan for the next couple of months.

Militants do not have the capacity to defeat the 600,000-strong army of the nuclear-armed nation, but they have partially paralyzed ordinary life in the metropolitan centres by attacking symbolic targets like the army’s headquarters, police training academies, a university and the business hubs.

The situation in the federal capital Islamabad may not be as bad as that in Peshawar, but the city appears under siege. Heavily armed security forces patrol the streets and long queues of vehicles wait for clearance at checkpoints on almost every main avenue.

Two back-to-back suicide bombings that killed eight people, including four female students, at the city’s International Islamic University Oct 20 forced the authorities to close down educational institutions across the country for more than a week.

In the country’s cultural capital Lahore, a city with over seven million people, the numbers of cinema and theatre-goers have sunk by almost 80 percent, chairman of the Film Exhibitors Association Jahanzaib Baig, told The News daily newspaper.

“Keeping in view the Taliban disdain for any cultural activity such as film, dance or any other form of performing arts, people apprehend they might target places like cinema houses and theatres,” said Baig.

Elsewhere, in the smaller cities dotting the country, there is also anxiety and fear, said an editorial in the liberal Dawn newspaper. “All that the people know is that there is a shadowy enemy inside the country which seems capable of striking at will.”

Ayesha Siddiqa, a defence analyst, said the tactics the Taliban had adopted might complicate Pakistan’s efforts against terrorism.

“For the moment most of the Pakistanis want action against the militants but sustained attacks will probably divide opinion, especially when we have a media that continues to describe these as the cost for Pakistan’s partnership with America,” said Siddiqa.

The death and destruction might convince the Pakistani public to question the utility of military operations against the Taliban. But the fear might equally turn into a positive force.

Siddiqa said the sheer terror the Taliban were inflicting on civilians would alienate them from the communities in which they operate.

“The more civilians die, the more ordinary people will be cooperating with the security forces to spot their hideouts and their networks,” she said. “Without public support a guerrilla fighter is like a fish out of water.”

In the long run, the indiscriminate attacks on civilians are a self-defeating strategy, she concluded.

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