Pakistan launches full-scale military assault on Taliban

Pakistan declared war on its homegrown Islamic extremists Thursday in a dramatic move that could trigger a wider conflagration.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, in a late-night televised address to the nation, said Pakistan would launch a full-scale offensive against Pakistani Taliban guerrillas who’ve seized control of the vast Swat valley, which is about 100 miles north of the capital.

Pakistan will no longer “bow our heads before the terrorists,” Gilani said in an 11 p.m. address as he called on citizens to rally behind the armed forces. He said that the government had tried peaceful negotiation with Taliban entrenched in the Swat valley, but the strategy hadn’t worked.

Pakistan had “reached a stage where the government believes that decisive steps have to be taken,” he said, and the army’s job now was to “eliminate the militants and the terrorists.”

Thousands of civilians have fled from Swat and neighboring districts in the fighting between the army and militants in the past week, but hundreds of thousands are unable to move and could be caught in the crossfire. Gilani appealed to the international community for humanitarian aid. [continued…]

Taliban’s popularity linked to perception it will lift Pakistanis from poverty

Socio-economic disparities run rampant, and corruption, classism and an entrenched feudal system all but ensure that the poor – more than 30 percent of Pakistan’s 170 million citizens, according to the World Bank – remain poor and marginalized.

Nine percent of Pakistanis lack access to clean water, according to the UN, and 38 percent of Pakistani children are underweight. Bonded labor continues unhindered in the most densely populated provinces of Punjab and Sindh.

Given the little that Pakistani governments, both civilian and military, have provided by way of land reform, education, health care and equitable justice over the past few decades, it’s not entirely surprising that an alternative – any alternative – holds appeal for Pakistan’s lower classes and peasantry. The Taliban in Swat have forced wealthy landowners out, and, in an ersatz land reform, passed the abandoned plots to the tenants who manned them. [continued…]

The battle for Pakistan’s soul

The conservative view held by many Islamist parties, populist politicians, retired army brass and hyper-nationalistic television anchors is that the Taliban are a reflection of the people’s desire for an Islamic system of governance, with quick justice, order and compliance with God’s will as the hallmarks of public life. Proponents of this view maintain that the excesses of the Taliban are greatly exaggerated, and that the real threat to Pakistan is from the US, which has destabilized the whole region with its Afghan war and its drone attacks on Pakistan. According to this view, the real aim of the US is to undermine Pakistan’s sovereignty and deprive it of its cherished nuclear weapons. To date, the conservatives have been more vocal, and gained more traction with the Pakistani public – drowning out the concerns about the Taliban by pointing fingers at George Bush, the US and India.

On the other side are people derided as “Liberals” and “Western apologists” by the conservatives. These liberals, many of them western educated, secular and belonging to the professional urban classes, have been reminding whoever will listen that while Pakistan is a Muslim majority country, it was created as a constitutional republic with the ideals of an independent judiciary, a parliamentary system of government, and representative democracy. Liberals argue that letting parts of the country become theocratic enclaves run by armed gangs of religious extremists undermines the ideals on which Pakistan was built, threatens its territorial integrity and is a recipe for disaster. Liberals insist that the Taliban, and their policy of “Islamicization at gun point” is the real threat to Pakistan, not India or the United States.

Which narrative ultimately prevails is crucial to Pakistan’s future because it determines whether the people of Pakistan see the fight against the Taliban and extremism as their own fight, or whether they will continue to see it as a US manufactured Global War on Terror into which Pakistan has been sucked. If Pakistanis see the fight in Swat as their own, then there will be public support for a continuing military offensive, there will be more latitude given to the bumbling civilian government of Asif Zardari, and there may even be some tolerance for the drone attacks which normally cause deep resentment among Pakistanis. But if the dominant narrative in Pakistan continues to be that Pakistanis are victims of global conspiracies, that the Taliban threat is exaggerated, and that Pakistan should have no part in fighting “America’s war”, then the military will most likely be forced to sign a truce with the Taleban, the civilian government will probably collapse under the weight of its unpopularity, and Talibanization will continue unchecked, one district at a time. [continued…]

Netanyahu’s three-step solution

Israel is under siege. More precisely, Binyamin Netanyahu’s government faces excruciating pressure on all sides as showdown talks loom with Barack Obama in Washington on 18 May. Circling the wagons will not work this time. Israel’s prime minister needs a breakout plan – and the outlines of his coming counter-offensive are taking shape.

The intensifying push to finally resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and not just the Palestinian issue, stems partly from the dangerously unfinished business of January’s shocking Gaza carnage. More broadly, it is driven by the hopes of a new administration in Washington and the spectre of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Now Netanyahu is receiving much the same free advice from all directions. Drop your opposition to a two-state solution with Palestine and you will unlock a wider Middle East peace, said Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, this week, backed by EU policy chief Javier Solana. Accept you must relinquish the Golan Heights and anything is possible, said in-from-the-cold Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, backed by Egypt and the Saudis. [continued…]

Loss of nuclear monoply – an Israeli nightmare

It is unclear whether the U.S. assistant secretary of state’s call to Israel to sign on to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty indicates a change in Washington’s policy toward Israel’s nuclear program, or even if the move was anticipated by the White House.

It is clear, however, that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The U.S. has been protecting Israel for years, creating a diplomatic umbrella and pushing away any attempt, in any international debate, to discuss the nuclear weapons the entire world believes Israel possesses. [continued…]

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