Taliban Tightens Grip Near Northern Pakistan Border Taliban militants are gaining strength and power around the northern Pakistan city of Peshawar. As the group expands its control, it is having a direct impact on U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan.

Taliban Tightens Grip Near Northern Pakistan Border

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is the latest to make a regular American appeal in the war on terror.

Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Secretary of State): Everybody needs to do more but Pakistan does need to do more.

INSKEEP: The U.S. believes Taliban militants still use Pakistan as a base for attacks on nearby Afghanistan.

Ms. RICE: Militants cannot be allowed to organize there and to plan there and to engage across the border.

INSKEEP: Pakistani officials may not have time to worry about Afghanistan. They have to worry about their own territory where the Taliban are widening their reach. NPR's Jackie Northam reports from the frontier city of Peshawar.

(Soundbite of arcade)

JACKIE NORTHAM: It's relatively quiet on this late afternoon at the Playpen Arcade in central Peshawar. A few mothers watch their toddlers on the musical rides. Other children fire laser guns at stuffed animals.

(Soundbite of video games)

NORTHAM: Outside the arcade doors, dozens of families mill about a popular park. Its lawns are a lush green from the recent monsoon rains. It's a tranquil scene but it belies the nervousness felt by many in this city of three million people. Pakistani government and security officials say the Taliban and other Islamist groups have tightened their grip on three sides of Peshawar.

The fourth and remaining side includes a major highway leading to the capital city of Islamabad, just 90 minutes away by car.

Mohammed Ikram, a 27-year-old jeweler, says he's deeply worried about the situation in Peshawar.

Mr. MOHAMMED IKRAM (Jeweler): (Through translator) The whole city of Peshawar is aware there are Taliban. We have been hearing about it. The Pakistani government has been assuring us that everything will be OK, but we really feel threatened.

(Soundbite of car horns honking)

NORTHAM: Many people say the crowded and chaotic streets of Peshawar are unsafe. There are regular reports of Taliban militants in pickup trucks roaming the streets at night, entering mosques and universities during the day and threatening shop owners.

The increased presence of the Taliban here in Peshawar was not unexpected. Over the past few months, Islamist militants have been steadily taking control of regions throughout Pakistan's lawless tribal belt and moving into towns and villages in the more settled regions.

Defense analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai says the Taliban groups in Pakistan have an allegiance to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Mr. RAHIMULLAH YUSUFZAI (Defense Analyst): The Pakistani Taliban, they actually emerged as sort of a reserve group for the Afghan Taliban. They organized themselves to protect the Afghan Taliban, to provide them fighters in case of need, and also to provide them sanctuaries in Pakistan.

NORTHAM: As Pakistan's Taliban expands its control, it's having a direct effect on U.S. and NATO military operations in Afghanistan.

(Soundbite of market)

NORTHAM: I'm standing near a market in the town of Jamrobe(ph). It's one of three subdivisions of the Khyber Agency. This is the gateway to Afghanistan. It's a tribal area and for years it was a smuggler's route. Now it's a key supply route for the U.S. and NATO allies in Afghanistan. Supply convoys have come under attack in recent months. Criminal gangs and militants, including the Taliban, are in the area. Last week they smashed the windows of supply trucks and intimidated the drivers.

Pakistan's security forces have fought back against the militants. At best it's been a limited effort because the authorities prefer negotiation over military action. But Pentagon officials say the number of Taliban crossing from Pakistan to Afghanistan to attack U.S. and allied forces has multiplied, and that Pakistan needs to do more than just negotiate peace deals with the militants.

High-ranking American military and government officials have traveled to Islamabad recently to press Pakistan's government to take military action against Taliban sanctuaries. Earlier this week, Pakistan's new prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani traveled to Peshawar to discuss the issue with tribal chiefs.

(Soundbite of music)

NORTHAM: A bugler with the Pakistan military marks the end of those discussions. Tribal chiefs wearing large, colorful turbans reach their own conclusion: that negotiations with militants should continue.

Malik Waris Khan Afridi is a tribal chief from the Khyber Agency.

Mr. MALIK WARIS KHAN AFRIDI (Tribal Chief): (Through translator) We believe in negotiations. If there are any terror problems going on, the best way to solve it is through negotiations.

NORTHAM: But there is growing recognition in many quarters of Pakistan that negotiations with the Taliban have done nothing to reduce the violence or the cross-border raids into Afghanistan. Several American reports say the peace deals have helped the Taliban grow in strength and numbers.

Military and political analysts here in Pakistan say the problem is a lack of political will, that the new and fragile government will not take ownership of the problem, and that the military won't take action against its own people until it has the full support of the government and the population.

But many analysts also believe nothing will happen until Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, gives the green light. The ISI has had ties with the Taliban for more than two decades.

Afrasiab Khattak, the president of the secular Awami National Party, says the Taliban problem simply cannot be ignored any longer.

Mr. AFRASIAB KHATTAK (President, Awami National Party): This is something that has to be immediately addressed, it cannot go on. Since the denials are not any more plausible, I think we should recognize the problem and address it and take measures to solve it.

NORTHAM: For its part, Pakistan's military defends its efforts. Army spokesman Major General Athar Abbas says it has offered to build fences between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It has 120,000 troops and paramilitary forces along the border. And, Abbas says, Pakistan has increased the number of checkpoints.

Major General ATHAR ABBAS (Pakistani Army): We have about 1,000 posts, but still, one had to admit that the individual or small groups crossing completely, if you want to block, it's not possible. Even if we double the size of the force.

NORTHAM: Abbas says there is growing pressure from the Pentagon to have Pakistan's military go after the Taliban. And as that pressure further intensifies, so too does the belief that the U.S. military will start taking unilateral action against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan.

But anti-American sentiment runs high in Pakistan. That would be exacerbated if U.S. troops started incursions into the country, says Khalid Aziz, the chairman of RIPORT, a research institute.

Mr. KHALID AZIZ (RIPORT): The difficulty of having Americans on the ground, visible to the people, then creates a lot of support for, actually, the Taliban and those who are criticizing the Pakistani government.

NORTHAM: One government official says the U.S. should be careful about browbeating a nuclear power such as Pakistan, even if it is an ally. There will be further discussions about Pakistan's deteriorating security situation. Pakistan's Prime Minister Gilani is due to fly to Washington next week to meet with President Bush.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Peshawar.

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