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Pakistan public opinion turning against Taliban

The footage was chilling — a woman crying out in pain, held face-down on the ground, as a man with a long beard flogged her in front of a crowd.
Mobile phone footage released by Dunya TV Channel shows a woman in a body-covering burqa face-down on the ground with two men holding her arms and feet and a third man whipping her backside. The video, taken in April, is believed to be changing some Pakistanis' opinions of the Taliban.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The footage was chilling — a woman crying out in pain, held face-down on the ground, as a man with a long beard flogged her in front of a crowd.

It could be the video that changed Pakistan.

That two-minute clip, purportedly shot in the Swat Valley where the Taliban held sway until a recent military offensive, has come to represent the militants and their extreme form of Islam. The footage is increasingly seen here as a turning point — perhaps even more persuasive than all the bombings, beheadings and other violence, most recently Tuesday's suicide attack on a luxury hotel.

The circumstances of the beating are murky. No one is sure where exactly it happened and the woman's identity remains unclear more than two months after the whipping was shown repeatedly on TV.

No matter. She remains irrevocably linked with the Taliban, an instant icon the government has used to ask Pakistanis if this is what they want for their country.

The answer from many seems to be no.

Many no longer support Taliban
There are no scientific polls, but in informal interviews by The Associated Press with more than three dozen Pakistanis across the country Wednesday and Thursday, not a single person expressed sympathy or allegiance toward the Taliban. The most common answer was the militants should be hunted down and killed.

Many people told the AP they used to support the Taliban but no longer do so. The finding is supported by those of Pakistani analysts and commentators, who say they detect a similar shift in public opinion recently against the Taliban.

Certainly, the militants retain some support, particularly in the lawless tribal regions bordering Afghanistan that the Taliban and al-Qaida have used as sanctuary. The extremists would likely retreat to these areas if they continue to suffer defeats elsewhere.

But the change in public mood is empowering the army in its offensive against the militants — a campaign supported by the Obama administration, which believes security in Pakistan is vital to defeating the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

Now the army says it has the Taliban on the run, helped by tips from residents in villages under fire. It's quite a change from several months ago, when the Taliban was on the march within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad, and there was talk of the entire country falling to the militants.

"Like all of us, I was welcoming the Taliban in the beginning," said Abdul Jabbar Khan, a 52-year-old shopkeeper. Khan now lives with eight family members in a relief camp in Mardan, along the northwest border with Afghanistan. They said they were forced from their home by fighting in Mingora, Swat's biggest town.

"When Maulana Fazlullah started giving sermons on the radio, he was talking about good things — heaven and Islamic teachings," Khan said, referring to the Taliban leader in Swat.

"Now we have the result," he continued. "It is very miserable, painful for all of us. We had a good life there. We had a good home and everything. Now we are begging for even daily meals. These people are responsible. They betrayed us and played with our religious emotions."

‘Kill each and every Taliban’
Nadeem Ahmad Awan, a 31-year-old bookseller in the southwestern city of Quetta, said the army should "kill each and every Taliban."

"No Taliban should go unharmed," agreed Asma Arshad, 23, a college student in the central city of Multan. "The killing of Taliban is good for Islam and it is good for Pakistan."

A majority of Pakistanis have always opposed Islamic extremists. Previous army offensives against the militants, however, have resulted in public backlashes as many people concluded the only way to end the bloodshed and destruction was for the weak central government to strike a deal with the extremists.

Mood may be changing
That may be changing.

"The mood has changed toward the Taliban even among those who had empathy with them," said Mahmood Shah, a retired military officer. "Now I don't think they can talk openly in favor of the Taliban. They will be stoned or something."

Attacks like Tuesday's bombing of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar that killed at least nine people, including two U.N. workers, also have hardened people's resolve.

"I get the sense that setting off bombs on any civilian target in the North West Frontier Province — particularly in a place like Peshawar, which might otherwise be a hotbed of support for the insurgency — is fairly obviously a counterproductive strategy," Shah said.

The militants' efforts to expand their sway beyond Swat also appear to have been a miscalculation. Under a February peace deal signed with the government, they imposed sharia, or Islamic law — the whipping in the video appeared to be punishment for an offense — and have been accused of murders, rapes and pillaging.

Sufi Muhammad, an influential Taliban cleric, further stirred outrage with a speech in which he denounced democracy and elections — an unpopular pronouncement in a country that recently has emerged from a decade of military rule.

Building support for offensive
When the Taliban advanced from Swat into the neighboring Buner district in April, the deal collapsed and the government sent the army to oust the militants from the region.

The rising public sentiment against the militants has played into the government's efforts to build support for offensives against the Taliban that started, with strong encouragement from Washington and other allies, in Swat and may yet head for tougher targets in the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan.

Sheik Maqsood, a 47-year-old social worker in Multan, said he used to like and respect the Taliban, but that over the years their atrocities in the tribal regions have changed his mind.

"These Taliban are unpopular to such an extent that not a single person is willing to utter even one word in their favor," Maqsood said.

The sea change in sentiment appears to have started with the video, said Mehdi Hasan, a journalism professor and political commentator.

The two-minute video, widely aired on local television in early April, shows the woman face down on the ground with two men holding her arms and feet. Her all-enveloping burqa has been hitched up to expose a pair of pink trousers.

Crowd watches silently
A third man in a black turban with a long beard whips her backside more than a dozen times, causing her to scream repeatedly and shout "Stop it, stop it! It is painful!" A crowd of men watches silently in the background.

"After the flogging of the girl in Swat, the people of the country's mood changed," Hasan said. "Before that, the public attitude was apologetic and defensive because of the word Islam."

The Taliban's other actions had an impact, too.

"The militants were blasting saloons, destroying girls' schools. They were stopping women from coming out of their homes or going to the doctor," Hasan said. "People became fed up with this. They are reclaiming Islam. ... For the first time in Pakistan, they are taking a strong stand against the Taliban and the extremists."

Taliban's ‘ugly faces’
Zahid Omar, 37, a local trader in the eastern city of Lahore, said people had been forced to see the Taliban's "ugly faces."

Zafar Hilaly, a former Pakistani ambassador, wrote in the influential daily The News that the Taliban's actions already have cost them any chance of destabilizing the government.

"They helped the public make up its mind," he wrote. "They helped the army do what it should have done much earlier, which was to fight. They encouraged parliament to acquire some spunk. Pakistan's victory in the present war against the Taliban is preordained for no other reason than the nation is finally united against the enemy."

The government has shown more savvy than in previous offensives against militants that left civilians dead. They appear to have been careful to avoid collateral damage as much as possible this time, though it's impossible to know for sure because the military has severely restricted access to the combat zones.

In addition, there has been a nearly monthlong pause in U.S. drone-fired missile strikes against militant targets near the Afghan border. Such strikes are unpopular in Pakistan, though U.S. officials say the lull was not timed to allow the government to build good will.

Army has more public support
The Pakistani army — whose reputation took a beating under former military leader Pervez Musharraf — says it's succeeding in Swat partly because it has more public support. Many residents are now more helpful in tipping off security forces to Taliban presence, military officials say.

The military also quickly dispatched helicopter gunships to the Upper Dir region in support of a citizens' militia that sprang up after the bombing last week of a mosque that was blamed on the Taliban. Some similar efforts have foundered for lack of government support.

Still, critics say the Pakistani army does not have the will or ability to vanquish the militants, given its close links to extremist groups.

While the peace deal with the Taliban was widely criticized at the time as a capitulation, President Asif Ali Zardari says he signed off on it because he knew the militants would violate it and show their true colors.

The flogging and other Taliban actions seemed to resonate with Pakistanis because Swat is much more a part of the Pakistan they're familiar with than the tribal areas. People who live in Punjab have vacationed in Swat and gone there to honeymoon. The tribal areas, on the other hand, are like another planet.

Millions displaced by offensive
The surge in support for the offensive still could end if the government fails to address the more than 2 million people displaced by the fighting or to hold Swat once it's cleared. Bringing law and order to that stretch of the northwest is critical to preventing the Taliban's re-emergence.

Residents in the troubled Bajur tribal region cursed the Taliban in interviews with the AP — but also complained the government did nothing for them after a successful military operation last year against the Taliban.

When the militants were in power, "we were facing threats from the Taliban but at least we could still live in our homes," said Dost Mohammed, one of thousands who fled their town of Mamund during the fighting — only to return to find their homes and crops destroyed.

Mohammed still favors army action against the Taliban. But he said that the government should help those who pay a heavy price for the war on terror.