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Pakistan mulls threat of Taliban takeover

"It scares me to think of selling cucumbers under Taliban rule. I pray to Allah the almighty that day never dawns," says Mohammad Aqeel, pushing his cart of Pakistani vegetables.

world Updated: May 10, 2009 12:51 IST

"It scares me to think of selling cucumbers under Taliban rule. I pray to Allah the almighty that day never dawns," says Mohammad Aqeel, pushing his cart of Pakistani vegetables.

Aqeel sells salad near the country's army headquarters, anchored on pristine lawns in Rawalpindi where people scoff at the prospect of a Taliban takeover yet doubt whether military operations will really defeat them in the northwest.

"I don't know what our government is doing but I'm praying for my army and soldiers. They're fighting these people and they shouldn't be allowed to spread elsewhere," adds Aqeel in the cool night air.

For the poorest in Pakistan, life is a daily struggle. Unemployment, rising prices, no state handouts, poor education and faith in Islamic justice are the raw ingredients which the Taliban exploit to win ground.

Security officials admit the Taliban have gone from controlling as little as three percent of the country to up to 12 percent, in a slow expansion in recent years that government offensives have failed to stem.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Islamists posed an "existential threat" to Pakistan, which jolted the government into ordering a new offensive to crush Taliban bases, but the claim is still dismissed by the local elite.

"The Taliban can't pose a threat to a state which has a 700,000-strong army. It can create uncertainty. It can scare people but they certainly can't take over or endanger Pakistan's existence," said defence analyst Imtiaz Gul.

But it was Pakistan's military and powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency that bankrolled Islamist groups to fight against bitter rival India in Kashmir and created the Taliban to build "strategic depth" in Afghanistan.

Today the Islamists bite the hand that fed them. More than 1,800 people have been killed in extremist attacks across Pakistan in less than two years. More than 2,000 soldiers have died fighting Islamists since 2002.

The country has seen an explosion in the number of madrassas, or Islamist seminaries. Some of the madrassas allegedly preach extremism to the poor and lower-middle classes who are recruited as suicide bombers, Islamist foot soldiers and commanders.

The Taliban, who behead and flog to impose sharia law, have sown terror among civilians across parts of the northwest.

"Pakistan's existence is not threatened as such. I would say Pakistan's existence as a civilised society is in danger," said analyst A H Nayyar.

He says sympathy for the Taliban extends far beyond the semi-autonomous tribal areas dominated by Pashtun tribesmen on the Afghan border and North West Frontier Province, where the army is pressing its triple-pronged offensive.

"The Taliban have pockets of sympathy even in Islamabad and parts of southern Punjab because of the large number of Islamic seminaries and jihadi organisations, like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi," said Nayyar.

"I can imagine the Taliban taking over the entire country if our state and military fail to take stern action," he added.

Society, as elsewhere in the Muslim world suffering from war, has become increasingly anti-American, exacerbated by US air strikes targeting fighters on Pakistani soil, and Western officials talk about a growing "Talibanisation".

The Taliban has claimed and been blamed for some of the deadliest suicide bombings in the Pakistani capital over the last two years.

Parents in Islamabad often keep their children at home on days of alerts about possible attacks. Anti-terrorist blast walls are mushrooming.

"It is a great threat that cannot be ignored. It has potential to turn into a fully fledged civil war," said defence analyst Talat Masood.

Yet he dismisses Western concern that the Taliban could capture Pakistan's nuclear weapons, which many in Pakistan suspect the West wants to strip.

"It is highly exaggerated so say our nuclear assets can fall into Taliban hands. It is being done deliberately. We also have concerns, but the country is not that unstable and the Taliban is not that powerful," said Masood.

Of Pakistan's huge military, only 12-15,000 security forces are battling in Swat, the iconic northwest district that went from ski resort to Taliban bastion, prompting doubts that the military really wants to crush them.

"The military and the state are not trying to eliminate the Taliban. They regard them as assets for certain policy objectives," said Nayyar.

"Instead of going for the Taliban and taking back possession of areas, the military pounds from a long distance, causing civilian casualties and hurting many, many more people than Taliban," he added.

Yet for some of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the fighting, the fear is that the Taliban will re-emerge from mountain hiding places once the guns fall silent.

First Published: May 10, 2009 12:49 IST