Support for Pakistan's anti-Taliban war seen solid

Mon Jun 29, 2009 3:40am EDT

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By Faisal Aziz

KARACHI, June 29 (Reuters) - Two months into a Pakistani military offensive against Taliban militants, public opinion is firmly behind the civilian government and the military and it shows no sign of wavering.

The offensive was launched after defiant Taliban fighters thrust towards the capital, raising alarm both at home and among Western allies who need nuclear-armed Pakistan's help to fight al Qaeda and to tackle a raging Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Investors in Pakistani stocks .KSE have been unnerved by the violence, which has included a string of suicide bombs in cities and attacks on the military across the north.[ID:nISL509608]

But investors and the Pakistani people in general wanted to see the offensive prosecuted to the end, and only then would their confidence be restored, said a stock broker.

"It is absolutely necessary for the government to control and counter these terrorist elements and regain its writ to end the state of despondency among the people who had started to feel there was no one to protect them," said Asif Qureshi, director of Invisor Securities.

"Let alone foreign investors, the success of this operation is essential for the restoration of confidence among local investors as well," he said.

The KSE-100 index has gained 23 percent this year after losing 58.3 percent in 2008. But the index is trading about 10 percent lower than its peak of this year, partly because of security worries. [ID:nSIN88254]

About 10,000 supporters of the Jamaat-e-Islami religious party rallied in Karachi on Sunday to protest against U.S. involvement in the region.

"ON THE BACK FOOT"

But their opposition to the offensive and sympathy for the Taliban was well known and their protest did not signal a strengthening of the argument that Pakistan should not be fighting "America's war", an analyst said.

"They're finding it difficult to dominate the discourse as they have been doing for some time. They're on the back foot," said Rashid Rehman, a former newspaper editor and analyst.

"The other voices, the dissident voices, the voices who have been arguing for the last 30, 40 years that we're heading down a suicide path, I think they're getting stronger," he said.

Pakistani leaders have for decades flirted with the religious right when they needed support.

In the 1980s, Pakistan began used Islamist guerrillas for foreign policy aims, first in Afghanistan to fight Soviet invaders and later in the disputed Kashmir region where Pakistan- backed Muslim fighters battled Indian rule.

That engendered considerable sympathy for the "jihadis".

But Pakistanis were shocked when the Taliban defied a peace deal that had given them virtual control of the Swat valley northwest of Islamabad and went on the offensive, seizing a district just 100 km (60 miles) from the capital in April.

Video footage of Taliban flogging a teenaged girl in Swat and a pro-Taliban cleric's proclamation that the constitution was un-Islamic contributed to a sea-change in opinion.

"It's an existential threat now to the state. The army, which after all was the creator of this monster, itself has come round to this view," Rehman said.

"It may be partly American pressure but it is certainly also an internal assessment that 'yes, we've lost control of these guys and they've gone haywire, something has to be done'."

The fighting has displaced about 2 million people and their suffering could incite public anger but despite that, many ordinary Pakistanis agree something has to be done.

"Everybody wants this filth wiped out," said retired school principal Nighat Anis. "The operation must be carried on so that no one like Osama (bin Laden) could dare come here."

"They aren't representative of the whole nation ... I don't believe opinion will shift in the militants' favour." (Additional reporting by Kamran Haider and Robert Birsel; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)





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