November 11, 2009 / 3:43 PM / 10 years ago

Pakistanis pay high price for anti-militant drive

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistan’s decision to hunt down Taliban militants has public backing but rising bloodshed is stoking doubt the military option will be worth the cost outside the battlefield.

Two men mourn at the scene of a bomb explosion in Peshawar, located in Pakistan's restive North West Frontier Province October 28, 2009. REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz

In and around Peshawar, ordinary people have paid a heavy price for the government’s decision to assault the Pakistani Taliban’s stronghold in South Waziristan along the Afghanistan border starting on October 17.

“What was my son’s crime?,” asked Zar Dil Khan, whose teenage son was killed along with more than 100 others in a bomb blast in Peshawar last month. “He wasn’t infidel or American, then why he was killed?”

Far from being bowed by the attack, the grieving Khan said the militants must pay: “If they’re killing people and not listening to anyone then of course, the government has got to fight them out.”

Peshawar is the capital of the North West Frontier Province, a mountainous, rugged land squarely at the center of global Islamist militancy because its South Waziristan region is a militant stronghold that has given Afghan fighters sanctuary.

Hundreds have died in retaliatory militant attacks across the country since the South Waziristan assault began. Reflecting the national unease, brokers say the ensuing insecurity has driven the Karachi Stock Exchange down by 6 percent since it began.

“Operations are not a solution. It’s an unending war,” trader Abdul Majid Khan said. “It’s spreading further chaos in our society. You have got to hold talks with them. You have got to assure them you’re sincere and not an American stooge.”

‘ANOTHER AFGHANISTAN’

Others said the militants’ targeting of innocent people demanded a tough response, along with talks.

“Militants want to make this country another Afghanistan and military operations are the last but only option,” shopkeeper Muhammad Kamran said. “There should be talks, but only with those people who respect the law.”

The latest attack, on Tuesday, killed at least 34 people in a public square in Charsadda, 20 km (12 miles) northeast of Peshawar.

“Terrorists will capture Peshawar if the government shows leniency this time,” Kamran said.

The Pakistani Taliban have vowed a tough guerrilla war against the army, and a spokesman warned on Tuesday that bomb attacks would continue to be a lesson to their opponents.

That militant resolve, some say, requires negotiations.

“The government has been conducting operations for the last five years but the army could not keep terrorism in Waziristan, and now it has spread to every nook and corner of the country,” shopkeeper Jamil Ahmad said. “Let us start talks.”

Cinema owner Tayyab Raza Mir said the government was not providing half of the equation for foiling the Taliban but leaving the burden on ordinary people.

“They have to be crushed but not at the cost of lives of civilians. The government has simply ignored its duty to provide security,” Mir said.

“The authorities have told us clearly to either shut down our cinemas or make our own security arrangements.”

That inability to deliver basic expectations has bred skepticism.

“Certainly everyone wants peace and security,” driver Muhammad Jamil said. “But I do not believe that the government has any solution to resolve this by force or talks.”

Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Nick Macfie

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