Islamic militants known as the Pakistani Taliban have extended their reach across all seven of Pakistan's frontier tribal regions and have infiltrated Peshawar, the provincial capital, heightening U.S. concerns that an insurrection may be broadening in the nuclear-armed nation.
Fighting over the weekend spilled into previously peaceful parts of the tribal belt that borders Afghanistan and intensified in South Waziristan, Bajour and Mohmand. In Bannu, southwest of Peshawar, gunmen fleeing police took dozens of schoolchildren hostage for several hours Monday before tribal elders brokered a deal offering them safe passage, state-run television reported.
"It's worsening day by day," said Safraz Khan, a political scientist at the University of Peshawar. "People feel vulnerable. People feel scared."
A disparate group of tribal armed militant groups, some of them linked to al Qaida, announced the formation of an alliance last month called The Taliban Movement of Pakistan. The 40-man leadership is from seven tribal agencies and eight bordering districts, underscoring the movement's reach. The group is thought to have 5,000 to 10,000 fighters and is growing steadily as it gains momentum.
The situation in these border provinces has long been unstable, and the Pakistani military has fought a few rounds with these militants which once were allies of the Taliban, but now are increasingly adopting the Taliban label for themselves. Instead of a restless collection of Pashtun tribes resistant to the government in Islamabad, the groups now appears to be morphing into a broader political movement that spans both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and threatens the government of Afghanistan (and Pakistan, though not directly and to a much lesser extent.)
U.S. officials are deeply concerned that the insurgency is becoming bolder and expanding faster than had been anticipated, a State Department official said.
"The feeling is that we are not dealing with a terrorist group here, but an insurrectionist movement," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "That's an elevation without question from what we've been dealing with."
He noted the broad scale of fighting across the tribal agencies, which together form the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and in settled parts to the east.
"These are not groups of Pashtun brigands popping potshots at army patrols," he said. "This looks like there is clearly coordination going on. This looks like an effort that appears to have been planned."
Though the strategy of this movement appears not to be the overthrow of the government of Pakistan or Musharraf in particular, they are serving as an increasingly organized wellspring of support for the Taliban in Afghanistan (and may increasingly be considered one and the same with that movement.) Consequently, it's impossible to completely resolve the security situation in southern Afghanistan without dealing with the militants across the border in Pakistan, though how that can be done at this point is anyone's guess. Unfortunately, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is one that calls for a multi-faceted and long-term political, economic and military approach, but do we have the willpower or the capability?