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Despite outrage over girl’s shooting, Pakistan still split over confronting Taliban

By Saeed Shah, McClatchy Newspapers –

ISLAMABAD — The horrific shooting of a teenage girl by the Pakistani Taliban to silence her campaign for schooling for girls has forced a battered Pakistan to consider how it can tackle violent extremism after years of equivocation and toleration, analysts and politicians say.

Pakistanis, almost obsessively, have followed the news of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai since Taliban assailants shot her in the head a week ago. The shock has jolted Pakistanis to resolve that the country can no longer live with an organization and an ideology in its midst that would attack a girl who only wanted to be allowed to go to school — and then brazenly promise to hunt her down again if she survived.

“Malala is Pakistan right now. This is not the Taliban’s Pakistan. This is our Pakistan,” said Asma Shirazi, the host of a popular nightly political show. “We have created this problem. Now the fire has reached our house. This is a question of our survival.”

Still, there is no consensus on whether fighting or talking is the answer to the militant challenge, leading to dangerous fractures in society. Thousands of Pakistanis have died in what people here call America’s “war on terror,” and many are reluctant to embrace a fresh military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, which is based in North Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, writing in the same newspaper, The News, a Pakistani daily, two columnists drew opposite conclusions, one pushing for immediate military action, the other opposed.

Maleeha Lodhi, a former ambassador to Washington, warned that “the window of public consent” for an operation against the Pakistani Taliban could close rapidly if not seized now. Ansar Abbasi, an influential conservative commentator, argued that such an operation would be a trap. “They (the West) want to use the poor girl’s case to further chaos and anarchy in Pakistan,” he said.

The military and the civilian government have given conflicting signals about whether an operation is being planned. With winter setting in, which would make conditions tough in the mountainous North Waziristan terrain, and an election due in the next six months, action would need to begin within weeks.

Apparently seriously rattled by the public revulsion since the assault on the teenager, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, the coalition of jihadists known usually as the Pakistani Taliban, issued a new seven-page defense of its actions Tuesday, this time in the national language, Urdu. Previous defenses have been in English.

“For this espionage, infidels gave her (Malala) awards and rewards. And Islam orders killing of those who are spying for enemies,” the TTP said. “We targeted her because she would speak against the Taliban while sitting with shameless strangers and idealized the biggest enemy of Islam, Barack Obama.”

Some religious conservatives even are trying to smear Malala, calling her an “American agent” and suggesting that the assassination bid was either a deliberate conspiracy to justify future military operations or that the event has somehow been “hijacked” by the West or pro-Western elements in Pakistan. As “proof” of this conspiracy, pictures have been circulated online of Malala meeting Richard Holbrooke, the late former U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On Sunday, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a political party, staged a rally attended by thousands for Malala in the southern port of Karachi. Its leader, Altaf Hussain, speaking to the gathering by telephone from exile in London, said, in remarks directed at the military: “Move ahead and crush the Taliban and 180 million people will be standing behind you.”

“You are either with the Taliban or you are against them. There is no third option,” he said.

But such talk is not universal. On Tuesday, Imran Khan, a cricket superstar who has turned populist politician and urges negotiations with the Taliban, warned at a news conference against military action.

“If, in anger at this tragedy, we do a military operation, our problems will only increase,” he said. “If military action were the solution, this issue would have been solved by now.”

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