Pakistan says tide has turned against al-Qaeda

 

PAKISTAN CLAIMS it has turned the tide in its battle with Islamist militants and says it has al-Qaeda on the run after a series of government offensives.

Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said public opinion had turned decisively against the extremists over the last few months, paving the way for the government’s military successes.

“Today, public opinion has converted to such an extent that the local tribes have set up lashkars [militias] to support army operations,” Mr Qureshi said in an interview yesterday in London.

His assertion was given weight by an opinion poll released yesterday showing that 80 per cent of Pakistanis believed the Taliban and other Islamist extremists posed a “critical threat” to the country.

A previous poll in September 2007 found that only 34 per cent viewed the Taliban as a threat.

Mr Qureshi said 95 per cent of the Swat and Malakand areas, which were seized by extremists, had been cleared of Islamist militias since a government offensive began in May.

He said the army was pressing deep into the South Waziristan tribal territory, striking at the base of one of the most powerful Pakistani warlords, Baitullah Mehsud.

Islamabad accuses the warlord of masterminding the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

But the offensive has had political costs. Gul Bahadur, a Taliban leader in North Waziristan, declared an end to a truce with the government and a spokesman said his men would launch attacks against the government.

Mr Qureshi said: “As we’ve put on the pressure, they have realigned. We are taking them all on. We are not picking between a bad and a good terrorist. A terrorist is a terrorist. The army has eliminated a lot of the second and third tier leadership, and that has hit their effectiveness, and their capacity to regroup and counterattack is diminishing, even if it is gradually.”

Pakistani and Afghan Taliban militias in the tribal areas have long been thought of as providing safe havens for al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden.

But Mr Qureshi said the army offensive had succeeded in the Pashtun tribal areas because it had popular support under a democratically-elected government: “We’ve turned the tide and democracy has played a significant role.”

People in the Swat valley had realised what Taliban rule cost them in terms of lost livelihoods and missed education for their daughters, he said, adding that a video of a 17-year-old girl being flogged by the Taliban for being seen with a man who was not her husband had a pivotal effect on the public. – ( Guardianservice)