′Pakistan′s liberal Pashtuns are losing the battle′ | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 24.12.2012
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'Pakistan's liberal Pashtuns are losing the battle'

The Pakistani Taliban have killed hundreds of liberal ANP officials in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in the last five years. Experts say that secular Pashtuns are losing the ideological battle in Pakistan.

Another secular Pashtun politician was killed by Islamist militants over the weekend. Bashir Ahmad Bilour, 69-year-old provincial minister and senior leader of the liberal Awami National Party (ANP), was targeted by the Pakistani Taliban in Peshawar, the provincial capital of the restive northwestern Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan.

It is not the first time that the Taliban have targeted an ANP leader. The ANP - the ruling party of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province - has lost hundreds of its workers and a number of its senior officials and members of parliament over the last few years in the war against terror.

Bilour, who was targeted by a suicide bomber when he was leaving a meeting of his party on Saturday, had been an outspoken critic of the Taliban and Islamic extremism.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari addresses the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly (Photo: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

President Zardari is fighting 'an unpopular war'

The Pakistani Taliban, who immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, said ANP leaders had been on their hit list for some time.

"ANP has been, still is, and will be our target," said local Taliban spokesman, Mohammad. He said the Taliban had a special group of suicide bombers which would attack "secular and anti-Islam" figures in Pakistan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, belonging to the liberal Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of President Asif Ali Zardari, paid tribute to Bilour by calling him "a courageous man who sacrificed his life for his convictions." He said that despite Bilour's death, he was confident that "the Pakistani nation will win this war (against terrorism)."

President Asif Ali Zardari called the death of Bilour a national loss. "Bilour will always be remembered as a martyr who never flinched in the fight against militancy," Zardari said in a statement.

'Unpopular war'

But many in Pakistan think that the country has already lost the war against the Taliban. Experts say that the Islamist militants are not only creating havoc in the country by attacking civilians but are also powerful enough to target sensitive military installations and liberal politicians. Five years ago, the Taliban allegedly assassinated the country's most liberal politician and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in a suicide attack in Rawalpindi. Since then, the Islamists have killed a number of high-profile politicians, most of which belong to the ruling PPP and the ANP.

Asfandyar Wali Khan, head of the secular Awami National Party (Photo: AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad)

The ANP is an ideological threat to the Taliban

But the ANP's stakes in Pakistan's fight against terror are higher than those of any other political party in Pakistan. The ANP is a pre-dominantly Pashtun organization, as is the Taliban. Losing the battle against the Taliban means losing power in the province for the ANP.

The ANP, whose long history of secular politics goes back to the time of its founder Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (also known as the Frontier's Gandhi), has ruled the province for many decades. Due to growing extremism in its own constituency, nonetheless, it has seen a plunge in popularity over the years.

According to DW's Peshawar correspondent Faridullah Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been badly affected by the "war on terror" and many people are against US drone strikes in the semi-governed northwestern tribal areas. In his opinion, many people held the ANP responsible for this situation. Something that right-wing groups were benefiting from, he said.

Experts like Malik Siraj Akbar, who is based in the US, are critical of Pakistan's response to the Taliban and the menace of terrorism. Akbar told DW in an interview that the main reason why liberal Pakistani parties faced a dilemma was that Pakistan had not officially owned the war on terror.

"Pakistan is not ideologically convinced that it is its war."

For this reason, counter-extremism and counter-terrorism experts in Pakistan say liberal parties have not been able to get the masses behind them in the fight against terror.

Negotiations with the Taliban

Dr. Riaz Ahmed, a political activist in Karachi, also hinted at the duality of the Pakistani state's fight against the Taliban:

Pakistani Taliban stand alert in their stronghold of Shawal in the Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan (Photo: Ishtiaq Mahsud/AP/dapd)

The US and Afghan governments are trying to negotiate with 'moderate Taliban'

"The US state has spent millions of dollars on killing the Taliban but now it is trying to negotiate with them."

Muhammad Shah Afridi, a conservative member of parliament from Khyber Agency - one of the semi-governed tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan - told DW that if the US and NATO could negotiate with the Taliban then Pakistan should do the same.

"War is not the solution to this conflict. We will have to talk (to the Taliban)," Afridi said.

"So what is the future of the parties like the ANP and the PPP who have been supporting the onslaught on the Islamists? Of course, politicians like Bilour who want an offensive against the Taliban are now a hindrance in these negotiations and will be removed from the scene," said Ahmed.

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