ISLAMABAD // On a recent afternoon, Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician, was having a hard time convincing a group of journalists that military operations in the country should be discontinued, especially in the restive tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Over lunch at the house of Mr Khan's friend, the prominent and vocal politician exchanged views with a group of leading journalists who had been invited.
And the debate that ensued - to use force or not against the Taliban militants and supporters - with one particular journalist of a different persuasion, is one that currently divides many Pakistanis. Mr Khan, a regular guest on the country's talk shows, has consistently opposed military operations in the country and the use of force in the tribal regions, which are considered strongholds of the Taliban. "By sending in the army [to the tribal regions], we created this problem," Mr Khan said, referring to the terrorist attacks that have wracked Pakistan in recent years. These, he stressed, were carried out in retaliation to civilian casualties in military operations in tribal areas.
Mr Khan said there were two types of suicide bombers: those seeking revenge for army strikes and young madrasa students who had been "misled". The solution, he said, was the disengagement of the Pakistani army from operations in the tribal regions. "Once the Pakistan army is considered as not doing America's job, it is no longer jihad. Then you can isolate the militants." Talat Hussain, a leading journalist and television anchor, disagreed.
"There is a blowback that is going on in Pakistan," Hussain said. "But I have seen the sanctuaries [of Taliban] operate. I have seen the sanctuaries destroyed. I have seen the Taliban entrenched and I have seen the Taliban on the run. In purely military terms, destroying a sanctuary is not a mean achievement. If they are on the run and there is a blowback coming in the urban areas, then it is hard to say that the military operation should not have been started in the first place."
Hussain added that suicide attacks were not only carried out by those seeking revenge, as Mr Khan had said, but also by those whose parents had volunteered them for operations in the name of religion. Mr Khan, however, dismissed Hussain's argument and the lunchtime gathering ended. The heated conversation reflected two divergent points of view prevalent in Pakistan: While the liberal and urban section of the population supports use of force against Taliban militants and their supporters, another section of nationalists and Islamists urges dialogue and negotiations.
"Khan and Hussain represent the polarisation of the Pakistani public sphere in the face of a war whose ownership continues to be an open question," said Rafia Zakaria, a columnist for Dawn newspaper. As the debate about terrorism rages, statistics released this month by an Islamabad-based research group found 2009 to be the bloodiest year in terms of civilian casualties. Compiled by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, the report noted that suicide attacks in 2009 were 32 per cent higher than 2008 and claimed 1,299 lives. More than 3,600 people were injured.
In total, 2,586 terrorist-related incidents across the country, including suicide attacks, killed 3,021 people and injured 7,334, according to the report, which compiled its data from news media, field sources and official records, Muhammad Amir Rana, the director of the research group, said. Militants also grew more brazen in their attacks as they used targeted assassinations, kidnapping and sophisticated bomb materials, Abdul Basit, a researcher at the institute, said.
Unlike previous years, 2009 witnessed a sharp increase in attacks on such civilian targets as shopping areas in major cities, mosques and a university in Islamabad. Earlier, militants targeted military, police and government installations. The restive North-West Frontier Province was the worst affected, followed by Balochistan and the north-western tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Last year, Pakistan launched two military operations against militants in the northern valley of Swat and the north-western tribal region of South Waziristan, considered to be one of the main Taliban strongholds. Although they were able to wrest Swat out of militant control and steadily gained ground in South Waziristan, the top militant leadership remains elusive.
Despite the partial successes, there is "ambiguity in responding to the escalating menace of terror on the policy and strategic levels", the report stated. Such a situation hands the advantage to the terrorists and allows them space to operate, the report concluded. Zakaria, the Dawn columnist, said the polarisation of views exacerbated the problem by making compromise harder to reach. "The danger is that [both sides] represent extremes that gloss over the reality that both Talibanisation and encroachments on sovereignty are pressing concerns," she said.
"Their voices show how the vast number of casualties in the war on terror is reducing a complex situation into an either/or question where Pakistanis must either support everything the state does or argue against any state action against the Taliban." firstname.lastname@example.org