Feb 18, 2008

Pakistan, Terrorism and Monday’s election

Pakistan, Terrorism and Monday’s election by Peter Bergen

Pakistan is in many ways the central front of the war on terror. US officials say that both the Taliban and al Qaeda are headquartered there. Al Qaeda directed the 2005 attacks on London’s transportation system which killed 52 commuters from Pakistan. The unsuccessful 2006 plot to bring down ten American airliners with liquid explosives in the United Kingdom was hatched in Pakistan, and the alleged terrorists who planned to attack an American air force base in Germany last year trained in Pakistan.

Now the violence from the al Qaeda and Taliban militants is blowing back into Pakistan itself. In 2006 there were a handful of suicide attacks there. Last year there were 60 suicide bombings, mostly directed against Pakistani soldiers, policeman and government officials. The most prominent victim of the attacks was, of course, Pakistan’s most popular politician, Benazir Bhutto. Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, testified earlier this month that suicide attacks in 2007 had killed nearly 900 Pakistani forces and civilians, and another 500 deaths were caused by armed clashes with the militants. McConnell pointed out that “in 2007, Pakistanis’ losses [at the hands of the militants] exceeded the cumulative total of all the years between 2001 and 2006.”

This wave of militant violence in Pakistan has led to a sharp decrease in support for al Qaeda and the Taliban. The polling organization Terror Free Tomorrow released a poll last week that showed that if the Taliban were on the ballot in Monday’s election in Pakistan they would garner only 3% of the vote, while al Qaeda would secure only 1% of the vote. Similarly, the poll found that favorable views of both Osama bin Laden and the Taliban have halved since the summer of 2007. Favorable views of bin Laden in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan where he is widely believed to be hiding have plummeted from 70% to 4%.

This sharp loss of public support, together with the attacks directed at Pakistani authorities, might make it easier for Pakistan’s military to eliminate the safe haven for the militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas on the Afghan border, something it has so far proven unable or unwilling to do. And the new government elected on Monday may have the mandate to demand that Pakistan’s militants be finally put out of business.