ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Violence engulfed Pakistan's northwest Thursday, as anti-government insurgents staged suicide bombings against local counterinsurgents, killing at least 20. Meanwhile, the government said it had killed 15 insurgents in an aerial bombardment.
Coming shortly after the presidential victory of Barack Obama, who's promised to toughen U.S. policy in this region, the latest clashes underline Pakistan's awkward position: caught up in a major conflict of its own while absorbing the spillover from war in neighboring Afghanistan, many of whose fighters have taken sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal belt.
The day's biggest suicide bombing was directed at a traditional gathering known as a jirga in the Bajaur part of country's tribal area, close to the border with Afghanistan. Eighteen people were killed and 40 wounded. Another suicide attack struck a paramilitary post in Swat, a valley in the northwest that's plagued by extremists, killing at least two people and wounding 11. In the provincial capital, Peshawar, rockets struck the airport for the third time in four days.
Islamic militants have been on the assault since summer, staging bombings across the country, massing in the northwest and virtually carving out a mini-state run by Taliban and al Qaida along the Afghan border even as insurgents advance in Afghanistan. Obama said during the election campaign that he'd order U.S. military intervention in Pakistan if the country were "unwilling or unable" to tackle the extremists itself.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East and Central Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Thursday that the insurgency in Pakistan represented an "existential threat, and they recognize it as such."
Bajaur is a crucial battleground, analysts said, a test of whether the Pakistani army has the motivation and the capability to deal with the scale and sophistication of the extremist threat, as the security forces still must fight for each mile of territory even after claiming to have killed 1,500 militants. An Afghan Taliban commander, Qari Ziaur Rahman, who's based across the border in Afghanistan's Kunar province, is said to be directing the insurgency in Bajaur, demonstrating the close links between the Pakistani and Afghan insurgencies.
"The question is what shape is the arc now? Is the momentum on the side of the government or not? It does appear they (government forces) are gaining some traction," said Shuja Nawaz, an expert on the Pakistani military who's based in Washington. "Pakistan can no longer afford to hide behind this false premise that the Afghan Taliban are OK but the Pakistani Taliban are bad."
Up till now, many have questioned Islamabad's commitment to battling the extremists, who enjoy sanctuary in the country's tribal area and include jihadist groups that the military formerly supported. The army's Bajaur operation has addressed some of that criticism.
Thursday's attack on the anti-Taliban tribal jirga, the latest in a series of gatherings that militants have targeted, raised questions about the army's apparent failure to provide protection. Tribes have formed traditional militias known as lashkars to take on the Taliban themselves, and the meeting in Bajaur, called by the Salarzai clan, had been convened in preparation for attacking militant hideouts, officials said.
The Salarzai were among the first Pakistani tribes to rise up against the Taliban, in August, inspiring a movement that's gathering strength and has provided hope to Islamabad and Washington.
"The military knows about the jirgas, when and where they are taking place. They could easily have provided protection," said Khadim Hussain of the Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, an independent research center based in Peshawar. "It is this sort of thing that is creating mistrust with the people. If you lose the trust of the people, you cannot win the war."
Given Pakistan's past patronage of Taliban and other extremist groups and its apparent ambivalence toward them even after they turned on the country, many Pakistanis remain cynical about whether their country has genuinely decided to take on the militants.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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