Taliban Threat Still Rising in Pakistan

A violent pro-Taliban movement continues to build strength and create chaos in Pakistan — with help from al-Qaida. The movement is pushing its way from tribal areas to Pakistan's teeming cities.

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We go now to a conflict with big implications for a key U.S. ally. A suicide bombing in Pakistan today killed at least five people in Rawalpindi, the same city where former prime minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated last December. The government blames pro-Taliban militants for both attacks. The Taliban has been multiplying in strength and in numbers over the past year as NPR's Jackie Northam reports from Islamabad.

JACKIE NORTHAM: In mid-December more than three dozen leaders from disparate Taliban cells across Pakistan's tribal belt gathered in the remote and inhospitable region of South Waziristan, along the Afghanistan border. The purpose of the meeting was to consolidate the Taliban under one banner. The name of the new group is Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan; in English: the Taliban Movement in Pakistan. It claims to have a fighting force of 40,000. Journalist Haru Nushi(ph) has covered the Taliban for many years, most recently for the BBC's Urdu service.

Mr. HARU NUSHI, reporter: They have become more bold, more planned in their attacks, and they are extending their theater of operation slowly but steadily.

NORTHAM: The Taliban movement in Pakistan is led by Baitullah Mehsud, whom the government here and the CIA believes was behind the death of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Taliban militants are also responsible for dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks across Pakistan over the past few months, which have left hundreds of people dead. Defense columnist Rahim Mullah Yustisi(ph) says the Pakistan Taliban appear determined to bring down the teetering regime of President Pervez Musharraf.

Mr. RAHIM MULLAH YUSTISI (Columnist): The suicide bombings and attacks in the cities are meant to destabilize the government and to demoralize the security forces. They want to create fear among the people, among the security forces, and they are strong. And they can strike anywhere in Pakistan.

NORTHAM: Yustisi says the Taliban receives funding, advice and other support from al-Qaida, which is also based throughout Pakistan's tribal belt. Retired Brigadier Mahmood Shah, a former government security chief in the tribal region, says the Taliban are like foot soldiers for al-Qaida. Shah doesn't think the Taliban have the ability to execute sophisticated attacks in big cities without help from al-Qaida.

Mr. MAHMOOD SHAH (Former Government Security Chief, Pakistan): These Taliban, they're not capable of killing our very intelligent and clean-cut operations so far away. So these are al-Qaida operations, because they have the intelligence, the (unintelligible), the people that they have highly trained can do so.

NORTHAM: Still, Shah says the newly aligned Taliban have the ability to create terror in Pakistan. He blames the government for waiting so long to respond to the growing threat, which he say has allowed the Taliban to proliferate. That and a strong propaganda campaign.

(Soundbite of Taliban CD)

NORTHAM: This CD released last summer, shows a Taliban militant calling for the revenge of a commander who he says was killed by Musharraf's government in the U.S. The CD also includes images of Pakistani soldiers being killed, their throats are slit, and an image of George Bush accompanied by the words Curse Be Upon You. CDs such as this are widely available in the shops and bazaars throughout the tribal region. The propaganda has helped the Taliban grow in numbers. Journalist Rashid says many poor and uneducated people in the region welcome the Taliban because they bring a form of justice to Islamic law into this lawless region. Rashid says the welcome wears off when the Taliban start implementing extreme rules like segregating schools with extreme repercussions for those who don't comply.

Mr. RASHID: When they come in and they start to dispense ugly justice, like slaughtering people and shooting them and chopping their hands off or something like that, that then creates a discontent against them.

NORTHAM: The problem is, the local population has nowhere to turn for help. Dozens of tribal leaders who normally have final say in a town or village have been killed by the Taliban, says analyst Yustisi.

Mr. YUSTISI: The people have to survive. If the Taliban are very strong and the government is very weak, then people are intimidated. They have to obey Taliban orders.

NORTHAM: Western defense officials here in Pakistan question how strong the new Taliban alliance will be in the long run. But for the moment, it's pushing its way from the tribal areas closer to Pakistan's cities. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Islamabad.

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