US demands arouse hostility of Pakistani public

Pakistanis must be convinced that a bloody civil war with Taliban militants is inevitable if they are to support a government offensive against al Qa'eda in tribal areas.

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ISLAMABAD // Pakistanis must be convinced that a bloody civil war with Taliban militants is inevitable if they are to support a government offensive against al Qa'eda in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, analysts and citizens say. The envisaged offensive is a key demand of the United States' common policy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, unveiled on March 27. The demand came with the promise of long-term economic and military assistance, and an assurance from Barack Obama, the US president, of his "profound respect for the Pakistani people and their history".

However, the rhetoric has done little to convince the Pakistani public, which responded with hostility to the notion of assistance being tied to "a greater willingness to co-operate". Independent analysts attribute the negative response to divisions within Pakistani society. "The difficulty for the Americans is that they have to address a variety of audiences, each of which needs to hear a different variation of the message. A collective holding statement just won't work," said Zafar Malik, an independent political analyst based in Islamabad.

He said the Obama administration would find a willing audience in Pakistan's ruling elite, which comprises a mix of secular and Islamist mainstream politicians, the military and civil bureaucracies, and businessmen and corporate professionals, all of whom stand to benefit the most from any influx of international aid and investment through the country's well-entrenched system of pork-barrel patronage.

Secular elements within the ruling elite, particularly the educated feudal class, are shocked and feel betrayed by the military's inability to prevent the assassination of politicians and officials of the Central Superior Services, the officer cadre of Pakistan's bureaucracy. "I just don't understand it. What is the army doing?" said a 37-year-old widow of an assassinated politician from Swat, requesting anonymity for fear of retribution against her children.

A greater challenge for the United States is to address the general population, which is roughly split along white- and blue-collar class lines in urban centres, and between landowning and tenant farmers in the countryside. They stand to benefit successively later and less from international assistance, and are thus instinctively cynical of the ruling elite and mistrustful of US motives. They are equally repulsed by the Taliban's puritan agenda and violent methods, and hold Pakistani and US intelligence agencies collectively responsible for creating the terrorists to pursue geopolitical aims in Afghanistan.

"The CIA created al Qa'eda, our agencies made the Taliban. They have provoked the monsters they created by attacking their lairs, and now they are retaliating. Actually, it is the agencies who are the real terrorists," said Afzal Khattak, a 42-year-old physics teacher from Swabi, a settled district of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) that has to date not been invaded by the Taliban. The educated urban class, which refers to itself as civil society, at least has a voice that is magnified by the country's independent news channels, angrily so over the past week, as parliament and the president, Asif Ali Zardari, moved towards approval of the Islamic courts demanded by the Swat Taliban.

However, having previously championed the movement for the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry, the independent-minded chief justice of Pakistan, they have an avenue of recourse. Taking up the case last week of the public flogging of a young woman by Swat Taliban, Mr Chaudhry castigated senior officials for their failure to protect citizens, while Tariq Pervez Khan, chief justice of the Peshawar High Court, refused to give a legal opinion approving the Swat accord on the ground that it was not yet clear whether it was within the bounds of the constitution.

But it is Pakistan's rural and urban poor, who account for roughly two-thirds of the population, who feel most exposed to the threat. A group of community leaders, gathered at the village of Nurpur Shahan on the outskirts of Islamabad, said the ruling class lacked the stomach for confrontation with the militants. The community is typical of Punjab and Sindh provinces, with liberal Sunnis and Shiites living together harmoniously and often intermarrying. They take a dim view of the militants' terrorism, particularly suicide attacks on Shiite mosques in Punjab and destruction of Sufi shrines in NWFP. An April 5 suicide attack on a Shiite congregation in Chakwal, 40km south of Islamabad, sparked a peaceful but vociferous show of unity by hundreds of residents.

Ominously, the Nurpur villagers said they have no intention of waiting for action by the ruling elite, which they view as corrupt and weak, and were quietly planning for the worse. "The so-called jihadis are hypocrites who murder Muslims. We are waiting for them to stop hiding behind bombs and show themselves. Then we will deal with them. If the government wants to help, it should supply weapons and step aside," said Raja Niaz Ahmed, one of two million military pensioners living in districts adjacent to Islamabad.

thussain@thenational.ae