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Suicide Attacks Rattle Pakistan as Offensive Continues

October 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Ray Suarez speaks with Washington Post reporter Pamela Constable who has been reporting from Islamabad on the Pakistani army's offensive against militants.

RAY SUAREZ: Near-simultaneous suicide attacks rocked an Islamic university this morning in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital. One bomber targeted the male-segregated part of the campus. Another struck a female-exclusive cafeteria. All told, five were killed, many more wounded.

WOMAN (through translator): I am fine, but the remaining girls are crying a lot. They are very scared of coming on to the university campus.

RAY SUAREZ: It’s the latest in a series of attacks across the country. In the last two weeks, the Pakistani Taliban and its allied factions have attacked army headquarters, government buildings, and police stations.

In the aftermath of today’s bombing, students raged against the Taliban and the government officials who came to survey the damage. Today’s strike was the first in the capital since the Pakistani military began a fierce campaign to root out militants in the lawless tribal lands bordering Afghanistan. The army has sent 30,000 troops into South Waziristan, hard by the Afghan border, displacing thousands of civilians as it pursues the Taliban.

MAJOR GENERAL ATHAR ABBAS, Pakistani military spokesperson: We are very confident that we will be able to block any bulk of movement, bulk — bulk — terrorists in bulk moving out from the area or moving in the area.

RAY SUAREZ: The operation is in its fourth day, and is expected to last weeks. We reached The Washington Post’s correspondent in Islamabad, Pamela Constable, earlier today.

Pamela, with all the violence in Pakistan in recent years, has Islamabad been a frequent scene of attacks like this one?

PAMELA CONSTABLE, “The Washington Post”: It has happened several times in the past year or year-and-a-half.

The first big, very big blast was at the Marriott Hotel last September. And this was really a shock and a wakeup call. It was a terribly large truck bomb with many powerful explosives. And it essentially destroyed the hotel.

There have been some smaller attacks since then. But the ones today at a university, an Islamic university, with 18,000 students studying the Koran, studying the tenets of Islam, this is sort of — it’s broken a new barrier, in some ways.

RAY SUAREZ: Was the university a target because it’s co-educational, because so many of its students are women?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: That could be a reason.

One of the bombs did go off in a girls — or women’s cafeteria, but the other bomb went off in the Islamic law library faculty lounge. So, there was no immediate, you know, message.

What it seems like is that this is part of a bigger campaign, of a bigger message by the extremists to weaken the government and to undermine its determination to go in and remove the extremists from the North Waziristan tribal area. That’s what people think that this — the broad message of all these recent attacks has been.

Progress of Pakistani forces

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's turn to that. A tremendous assault by the Pakistani army is under way, even as these bomb attacks are unleashed in the capital.

What can you tell us about the progress of the Pakistani army?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: The army officials say that the operation is going well. We have no direct access to the area. It's completely sealed off.

We do know that thousands and thousands of people are streaming out in trucks and cars to escape the assault. As you may recall, last summer, there was a similar campaign in the Swat Valley, in which hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. They have all now gone home, but a second wave is now fleeing from Waziristan.

The army says it's determined to go in and get these guys. It says it's having success. But we understand that, yesterday, a town that had been taken by the military was retaken by the Taliban. So, this fight is far from over.

RAY SUAREZ: A town retaken by the Taliban. So, even though the Taliban is heavily outnumbered by the Pakistani army, they're holding their own?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, as in any insurgent conflict, you know, those who know the terrain and can melt into it have the advantage.

You know, the Taliban are a classic insurgency. They are mobile. They are very knowledgeable. They can melt in and out of these rugged remote mountainous hills and valleys, heavily forested area. A conventional army is really not trained to fight them.

RAY SUAREZ: But the Pakistani forces also have airpower, something the Taliban can't aspire to. Is the military command saying they're going to stick with this operation until they retake big chunks of South Waziristan? Are they there for a long time, or is this the kind of short-term attack they will eventually draw back from?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: They say that, this time, they're going in for the long haul. They waited a very long time to launch this assault. It had been expected for many months. And they had been saying for many months that: We're going in soon, we're going in soon.

But they waited. And when we talked to army officials about it recently, before this operation started, they said: We're taking our time. We're going to get it set up and we're going to do it right.

I think they know how much is at stake here. I think they know that, if they lose this territory to the extremists, that they may never regain their credibility.

RAY SUAREZ: What do we know about the Taliban army? Is it drawn from both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border? Is it mainly Pakistani? Do we know?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: I would say it's mainly Pakistani, although, as you know, the border is very porous. These are similar tribes, even related tribes, living on both sides. There are related groups with similar religious aims on both sides. So, there's lots of, you might say, insurgent traffic back and forth.

But the leadership is Pakistani, and the senior commanders are Pakistani. So, I would assume that the large number -- majority of their fighters are also locals.

RAY SUAREZ: Pamela Constable in Islamabad, thanks a lot for joining us.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: You're very welcome.

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