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Tide turns against the Taliban

By Owen Bennett-Jones
BBC News, Peshawar

IDP's queue for food
Support for the Taliban is fading as the conflict increasingly affects civilians

In Pakistan there has been a real change in the past few months - the public has had enough of the Taliban and the army has gone to war. As a result well over one million people have been forced to flee their homes.

I have come to a place about an hour's drive from Peshawar, 50 miles (80km) from where there has been intense fighting.

There are many people on the move here who have run away from that fighting and they have brought with them eyewitness accounts of the brutal things they have seen under the Taliban's control of the Swat valley over the past few months.

"They were beheading people, they were shooting innocent people without any warning, they were terrifying us," one woman tells me.

"They were stopping our kids from going to school, they were kidnapping young boys."

A man standing nearby is also eager to talk.

"With my own hands I have buried 18 people who were beheaded, even children," he tells me grimly.

"They are not friends, they are not our allies, they're our enemies, they are criminals, they are gangsters."

New mood

Such strong public criticism of the Taliban is new - the mood has changed in Pakistan.

They say, 'eliminate them, clear up our area, for God's sake', that is the message that is coming from the local people
Tariq Hyatt Khan,
senior government official

Tariq Hyatt Khan is the most senior government official in one of the tribal areas in North West Frontier Province and he tells me that the people of Pakistan have simply had enough of jihadis.

"I know people from Swat, I've served in Malakand as a political agent," he explains.

"The people hate them and if you see the letters to the editors of all the major newspapers, the people of Swat are writing and they are thanking the army for intervening in a decisive manner.

"They say 'eliminate them, clear up our area, for God's sake', that is the message that is coming from the local people."

In the garrison city of Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province, the Taliban have been launching attacks.

Their main target has been the police and hundreds have been killed.

Malik Naveed Khan runs the police force in the province - his own brother was killed in a suicide attack.

"They're being beheaded, they're being kidnapped, their families are being kidnapped. One of our superintendents of police, his brother has been kidnapped and he has been told to resign from the force.

"We are facing this war, but for every victory there have to be sacrifices," he says with little emotion.

If the sixth biggest military cannot take care of 15 or 16 individuals, then I'm sorry, we're not good at it
Khalid Aziz, ex-chief secretary,
North West Frontier Province

He shows me a Taliban propaganda DVD - it contains the most disgusting images I have ever seen, including the beheading of a policeman, standing head-hooded, decapitated with a single blow of the sword.

But who are the Taliban?

It is one word for a complicated and disparate movement.

Khalid Aziz, former chief secretary of North West Frontier Province, says the answer is to start at the top.

"We must separate it, we must identify the leadership," he says.

"If you look at it, how many people would be involved in the top leadership - 15 or 20. If the sixth biggest military cannot take care of 15 or 16 individuals, then I'm sorry, we're not good at it.

"If we have not contained it and it goes to Lahore and the rest of the area, we will lose the country," he warns.

In the balance

His fears are real - the jihadis have already killed in Lahore and suicide bombers have launched three attacks from the city so far this year.

And then there was the brazen attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team.

Police officer helps a wounded colleague
Police officers are increasingly being targeted by the Taliban

But is it possible, in return, to directly target the Taliban leadership?

Gen Tarik Khan has led the military's fight against the Taliban for the past three or four years in Pakistan.

He has a ferocious reputation, but says there are limits to what he can do.

"Any kind of military operation that seeks to take out individuals is an intelligence-driven operation that requires a lot of technology, a lot of surveillance capacity, which we don't have.

"I have boots on the ground and troops that I can organise to go against organised resistance and cohesive militancy, but I can't really go after individuals," he says.

When American politicians hear statements like that they begin to get rather irritated.

Washington, they point out, has spent a very large amount of money in Pakistan since the 9/11 attacks.

Sen Bob Menendez, like many others have been asking questions.

In a recent congressional hearing he demanded to know where the military aid America had already given Pakistan had gone.

"How come the general spearheading the fight still doesn't have the equipment that he needs? We don't even know where significant amounts of this money went to. That's $12bn later."

Pakistan is a very different place compared to three months ago. People now say they have simply had enough.

Nevertheless, the army has left it late to confront its enemy, too late maybe to think that victory can be won by just targeting the top leadership.

The militants are well equipped and well trained.

This is a conflict that could go on for years.

Owen Bennett-Jones will be broadcasting from Pakistan for the BBC World Service's Newshour programme from 25 to 27 May at 1300BST and 1400BST.



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