MADELEINE BRAND, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
It is Independence Day in Pakistan. Ceremonies are being held to mark the nation's 62nd anniversary. Pakistanis haven't had much to celebrate in the last few years, but this year is a little different. There are signs the government is finally making progress in its efforts to stop the spread of Islamist militants.
NPR's Philip Reeves reports from the capitol, Islamabad.
PHILIP REEVES: History has not been kind to Pakistan during the short time it's been on the map. The last two years have been particularly bad. There's been economic turmoil; thousands of Pakistanis have lost their lives to assassins and suicide bombers, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)
REEVES: Today, Pakistanis mark their Independence Day with religious hymns.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in foreign language)
REEVES: There were military parades and tributes to fallen soldiers.
(Soundbite of a military band)
REEVES: There was also something else: a flicker of optimism among the many moderate Pakistanis who long to see an end to the menace of the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Much of this is because of the fate of one man: Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan. Most Pakistanis hate it when the U.S. fires missiles from unmanned CIA drones into the tribal belt along the Afghan border. They resent the fact these missiles sometimes kill civilians, as well as militants. Yet, there seem to be no complaints about the missiles that officials say killed Mehsud last week.
Several Taliban leaders insist Mehsud's still alive. They've produced no evidence.
It's very hard for correspondents to figure out exactly what's going on in Pakistan's tribal belt. The Pakistani authorities ban them from entering the area.
Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)
REEVES: So this is where outsiders come in search of clues about what's going on in the mountains - the teeming, turbulent city of Peshawar, gateway to the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan. The tribal belt begins just outside the city.
Mr. MAHMOOD SHAH (Retired Brigadier): I hardly have seen…
Peshawar's residents include retired Brigadier Mahmood Shah, who served as a senior Pakistani government official in the tribal areas. The brigadier is convinced Mehsud is dead.
Mr. SHAH: Absolutely. I think if you heard the number of news that we have in the area and the local people, I'm very sure that he's dead.
REEVES: Soon after Pakistanis learned of Baitullah Mehsud's death, word began circulating of a bloody power struggle between different Taliban factions. There are reports of dozens of deaths.
Ismail Khan is a leading Pakistani journalist based in Peshawar. He's been covering the militants in the tribal belt for years. He believes it's true Taliban commanders are fighting over who should replace Mehsud, and with good reason.
Mr. ISMAIL KHAN (Journalist): There's a lot at stake: the vast resources that they have been able to accumulate over the years; the territory that they hold; thousands of fighters that they have. So there's a lot at stake.
REEVES: But Khan says the Taliban is by no means a spent force.
Mr. KHAN: This is not going to go away, you know, overnight. They still control territory in South Waziristan and North Waziristan and some, you know, pockets here and there. But yet, the myth has gone that the Taliban are invincible. They are not.
REEVES: Khan thinks Mehsud's death and the rifts within the Pakistani Taliban represent an important opportunity for Pakistan's government if it decides to take it.
Mr. KHAN: What is needed at the moment is a strategy, how to exploit the power struggle that is going on.
REEVES: It's shortly after sunset in Swat Valley, a few hours drive from Peshawar. In Swat's main city, Mingora, a military curfew's in force. Not so long ago, these same empty streets were under Taliban control, but the Pakistani army drove out the militants.
Brigadier Saad Muhammad(ph) is a retired Pakistani soldier and diplomat, now working as a political and security analyst. He says the Pakistani military's success in Swat is another reason many Pakistanis now dare to feel a little hope.
Mr. SAAD MUHAMMAD (Political and Security Analyst): The public opinion, the media has changed significantly in the last couple of months, and they're now generally supportive of the military operations.
REEVES: But the brigadier is worried. The reason the Taliban seized power in Swat was because the government there fell apart. Brigadier Saad says the Pakistani authorities urgently need to establish their writ. That means getting the police, civil administration, judiciary and other institutions up and running as soon as possible.
Mr. MUHAMMAD: You have this window of opportunity available. And before the people again turn against you, somebody up there has to think about this. Something has to be done immediately.
REEVES: Otherwise, warns the brigadier, the Taliban could well come back and Pakistan's flicker of hope would be snuffed out.
Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad.
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