TIME Pakistan

Pakistani Cleric Says Talks With Government Failed

Khan and Qadri are demanding Sharif resign over allegations of vote fraud in last year's elections

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A fiery Pakistani cleric who has been leading a mass rally outside parliament demanding Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s resignation said on Thursday that he has “shut the door” on further talks with the government.

The development was a worrisome sign in the already troubled negotiations between the Pakistani government and the opposition amid a lingering crisis that has raised fears of political instability in this nuclear-armed country of 180 million people with a history of political turmoil and military dictatorships.

The cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri, and Pakistan’s cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan have been leading mass rallies for two weeks in Islamabad.

The demonstrations initially locked down Islamabad and disrupted life and business in much of the city. Lately, the rallies have mostly fizzled out but the crowds, which are camped out near the parliament and administration buildings in the heart of the city, still surge, especially in the evenings.

Khan and Qadri are demanding Sharif resign over allegations of vote fraud in last year’s elections — something the prime minister has repeatedly said he would not do, though he is prepared to negotiate on some of the other demands by the protesters.

Qadri, a dual Pakistani-Canadian citizen with a wide following, emerged from a lengthy late night round with of meetings with government representatives to tell his followers that the talks had made no progress.

“I announce with regret that out talks with the government have failed,” Qadri said early Thursday. “We will now shut the door on any further talks.”

Qadri has also demanded that Sharif and the premier’s younger brother, who is chief minister in the eastern Punjab province, be arrested over an incident in June in the eastern city of Lahore when 14 people were killed during clashes between Qadri’s supporters and police.

Under Pakistani law, the prime minister enjoys immunity and cannot be arrested as long as he is in office.

In a compromise gesture, Railways Minister Saad Rafiq who is leading the talks with the opposition said the government agreed to register the Lahore case with the local authorities — meaning the incident would have to be investigated and could possibly go to trial.

“This case is being registered against all those people who have been named in the complaint” by Qadri, Rafiq said.

However, Rafiq said the government would never accept any unconstitutional demands, such as the disbanding of the parliament or Sharif’s resignation.

“Tahir-ul-Qadri wants the dissolution of assemblies and resignation of the prime minister,” he said. “We will never accept this demand.”

Sharif, whose election last May marked the first democratic transfer of power since Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947, cancelled a planned official visit to Turkey on Thursday to deal with the situation.

Sharif was forced once before from office during a previous stint as premier, when the then-army chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in a coup in 1999.

TIME Pictures of the Week

Pictures of the Week: Aug. 15 – Aug. 22

From ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and the killing of Hamas leaders in Gaza to Pope Francis’ visit to South Korea and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME Pakistan

Protesters Demand the Resignation of Pakistan’s Prime Minister

Anti-government marchers enter Red Zone
Pakistani political party Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) members celebrate entering the Red Zone in Islamabad, Pakistan, on August 20, 2014. Thousands of protesters ran over the barricades and entered Pakistani capital Islamabad's sensitive Red Zone area, which houses state buildings, on Tuesday night as the heavy force deployed there offered no resistance. Chanting anti-government slogans, protesters wanted to topple the government. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Political opponents claim that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was fraudulently elected

Thousands of antigovernment protesters in Islamabad marched to the Parliament on Tuesday to demand the resignation of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Reuters reports.

Opposition leaders claim that Sharif was unfairly elected to power last year.

The protests are being led by former international cricketer Imran Khan — head of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party — and prominent politician-cleric Tahir ul-Qadri.

Khan, who is demanding that Sharif’s government make way for fresh elections, alleges that Sharif’s party won last year’s poll through fraudulent means. On Monday, he also claimed that 34 members of his PTI party would resign from their seats in the National Assembly in protest against the current regime.

Qadri is accusing Sharif of corruption and wants the current administration replaced by a unity government of technocrats. The two leaders have held separate protests in the past, but announced earlier this week that they would join forces to march on Parliament.

An estimated 50,000 protesters have been holding demonstrations in Islamabad for five days. Reuters says that some are equipped with cranes and bolt cutters to dismantle and remove the shipping containers that are being used to barricade the government “red zone,” where Parliament and other state buildings are located.

Sharif originally called on the country’s powerful military — which deposed him in a 1999 coup — to secure the red zone, but Khan issued him a warning. “If police try to stop us and there is violence, Nawaz, I will not spare you, I will come after you and put you in jail,” Reuters reported him as saying to a crowd of supporters.

As marchers approached the capital, Sharif relented and announced that protesters could enter the area. Sharif’s daughter Maryam Sharif said on Tuesday through her Twitter account that this was because there were families among the demonstrators.

The Guardian reported that protesters, including women throwing rose petals on the ground, were not stopped by police officers as they marched into the red zone.

The protests have put pressure on the weakened government that already has poor relations with the military. It also threatens to further shake the stability of Pakistan, which is battling against a bloody Taliban insurgency and a high unemployment rate.

[Reuters]

TIME Pakistan

Twin Protests Suspend Life in Pakistani Capital

Pakistan
Supporters of Pakistan's fiery anti-government cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri listen their leader at a rally in Islamabad on Aug. 17, 2014 Anjum Naveed—AP

The protests have taken a strain on the city of roughly 1.7 million inhabitants

(ISLAMABAD) — Twin protests demanding the Pakistani government step down have wreaked havoc in the capital, Islamabad, where commuters must circumvent shipping containers and barbed wire to get to work, protesters knock on people’s doors to use the bathroom, and garbage is piling up.

“People are talking of revolution but (they) don’t care about the difficulties we are facing due to this situation,” said Zafar Habib, a 56-year-old government employee in Islamabad.

Tens of thousands of people have descended on the capital in recent days, answering the call from cricket-star-turned-politician Imran Khan and anti-government cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri to push for the government’s ouster. Both claim widespread fraud in the May 2013 vote and want new elections, something the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is not likely to concede.

Both Khan and Qadri have vowed to remain in the streets with their supporters until Sharif leaves office, raising fears of political instability in the nuclear-armed nation, which only saw its first democratic transfer of power last year.

The protests have taken a strain on the city of roughly 1.7 million inhabitants, many of whom work for the government, embassies, or non-governmental organizations. The difficulties began last Wednesday, when the government started to beef up security, and show no signs of letting up in the next few days.

The most affected neighborhoods have been in the eastern part of the city where the protests have been centered, not too far from the so-called “Red Zone” and a diplomatic enclave that house government offices, embassies and other sensitive installations.

Residents say protesters — mostly women — knock on their doors early in the morning, hoping to use their bathrooms.

“This is frustrating! I and other residents were trying to accommodate the women but then today some men also knocked on my door,” said Sajid Khan, a real estate agent.

Male protesters have also been crowding the washrooms in local mosques or simply going into the nearby forests. Garbage is beginning to pile up as well.

“My main concern is the deteriorating hygienic condition. This will make us and our children ill,” said retired government servant Jahangir Zahid.

Residents and people trying to get to work have also been stymied by both the protesters and the security measures the government has taken to deal with them. Early last week the government started putting up shipping containers to control access to and from the city. The hundreds of vehicles brought by protesters have also clogged the roads.

“I have to put in more hours and fuel to reach my office these days,” said software engineer Adeel Ahmed.

While the crowds have fallen well short of the million marchers that both Khan and Qadri promised, their presence and the heightened security measures have virtually shut down business in the capital. The rallies have nevertheless remained festive, with families picnicking and men and women dancing to drums and national songs.

Police estimate the crowds in both sit-ins have gradually dwindled since they arrived in the capital late Friday. Both rallies began as caravans of vehicles setting out from the eastern city of Lahore.

According to police, there are currently around 25,000 to 30,000 people in both demonstrations. The two rallies are centered along parallel streets, each with its own stage for speakers, but the crowds overlap and mingle at various times, especially when the leaders or key figures address the gatherings.

Business owners say many of their suppliers are not able to reach their shops. Shaukat Ali, who owns a meat shop, said Sunday that his supplier hasn’t been able to come so all he had was a crate of chickens to sell.

Bicycle store owner Adeel Zafar said his shop has been closed for a week because of the protests.

“Why we are being punished?” he said.

Protesters say they have little choice but to rely on local residents for help. Saeed Ahmed came from the city of Faisalabad, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) away, to support Qadri. Ahmed said they were ready to suffer what may come in support of Qadri’s revolution but complained that local residents weren’t too cooperative.

“At least let us use the restroom and share a little food with us,” he said. “This is what our religion teaches us.”

TIME

Thousands Heading to Opposition Rally in Pakistan

(ISLAMABAD) — Thousands of Pakistani opposition supporters were on the road for a second day Friday, heading in two separate convoys to the capital, Islamabad, for a massive rally meant to pressure the country’s prime minister to resign over allegations of rigging last year’s parliamentary elections.

The convoys, which started out on Thursday morning from the city of Lahore, were in response to calls by two very different opposition figures: Imran Khan, the famous cricketer-turned-politician, and firebrand cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri who commands a strong following through his network of mosques and religious schools in Pakistan.

Both have challenged the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who came to power in 2013 in the first democratic transfer of power in a country which has seen three coups since gaining independence in 1947.

They demand new elections under the supervision of a neutral government, but Sharif’s aides say the demand is unconstitutional. Khan also wants a new election commission chief appointed before the vote is held, while Qadri says electoral reforms are necessary.

The opposition march comes at a time when Pakistan’s military is fighting militants in the troubled North Waziristan tribal region, which has been a base for militants accused of launching attacks in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan. The military has killed over 500 militants there since launching the June 15 operation.

The government has criticized Khan and Qadri, saying the country needs unity — not turmoil and dissent — at a time when the armed forces are fighting militants who have killed thousands of people in recent years. Authorities have also said there have been intelligence reports about possible attacks on the convoys or the opposition rally, which is expected to start Friday evening in Islamabad.

After 20 hours on the road, the slow-moving convoys had covered about half of the distance of 300 kilometers (187 miles) toward the capital.

“Listen, Nawaz Sharif, I am coming to Islamabad to seek your resignation,” a boisterous Khan told followers from atop his truck as it passed through the city of Gujranwala, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) away from Islamabad.

In Gujranwala, dozens of Sharif supporters pelted Khan’s truck with shoes and stones but he was unharmed, his aides said. Pakistani TV showed supporters and Khan and Sharif throwing stones at each other in the city.

Earlier, Khan said he was hoping to lead a march of one million people in the Pakistani capital later in the day. Qadri also said he expected one million people to join him in Islamabad, a city of 1.7 million residents according to a 2012 census.

Ahead of the rally, thousands of riot police and special units were deployed across Islamabad. Authorities also blocked many roads in the capital with shipping containers.

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan on Thursday apologized for the city’s paralysis, insisting the measures were for the residents’ own safety and warning the demonstrators they would be dealt with “an iron hand” if they try to disrupt law and order.

Sharif criticized his opponents for pursuing “negative politics” and promised to safeguard democratic institutions.

Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country of 180 million people, has largely been ruled by military dictators since it was carved out of India in 1947.

Sharif has also been the victim of a military coup. His elected government was ousted in 1999 by then army chief Pervez Musharraf.

The army still wields much influence over life in Pakistan, which has seen frequent attacks by militants and insurgents of various backgrounds and agendas.

Late Thursday, attackers tried to storm two air bases in the southwestern city of Quetta, the capital of southwestern Baluchistan province, sparking a gunbattle that killed 10 militants, the police said.

Police chief Muhammad Amlish said seven security personnel were also wounded in the attack. He said the attackers used guns and grenades as they tried to enter the Smungli and Khalid military bases on a sprawling complex next to the city’s airport. Initial police reports had said only two attackers were involved.

No one claimed responsibility for the attack but nationalists groups have for years waged a low-insurgency in Baluchistan to pressure the government for a fairer share of local resources.

___

Associated Press Writer Abdul Sattar from Quetta contributed to this report.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Rallies to Test Government, Its Democracy

Pakistan
Ahead of planned antigovernment protests, Pakistani police force deploy in Islamabad on Aug. 12, 2014 B.K. Bangash—AP

Opponents of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif call for the government to step down and new elections to be held during a protest in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, on Thursday

(ISLAMABAD) — Ahead of planned massive anti-government protests, Pakistan’s capital feels like a city preparing for a siege.

Shipping containers block roads leading into central Islamabad, placed by security forces hoping to halt protesters supporting either a fiery anti-government cleric or a cricket star-turned-politician. Police in riot gear can be seen taking up positions across the city as authorities suspended mobile phone service in some areas. Meanwhile, those worried the government may cut off fuel shipments to slow demonstrators have lined up at gas stations.

The protests Thursday represent the strongest challenge yet to the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, just a year after he took office in the first democratic transfer of power in a country long plagued by military coups. And how the country reacts to calls for Sharif’s ouster will show how far its nascent democracy has come.

“I think there is going to be a test of wills in Islamabad,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, who heads the Institute for Strategic Studies.

Two men are at the forefront of challenges to Sharif.

The first is Tahir-ul-Qadri, a Pakistani cleric who’s also a Canadian national. He commands a loyal following of thousands through his network of mosques and religious schools in Pakistan. Last year, Qadri held a protest in the capital calling for vaguely worded election reforms ahead of the country’s May poll, grinding life in Islamabad to a halt. His followers already clashed with police this weekend.

The other is Pakistan’s former cricket legend Imran Khan. His Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is the third-largest political bloc in parliament. Khan’s attempts to win followers in Punjab province, the power base for Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League-N, have rattled the ruling party.

Both men want the government to step down and new elections be held. Khan alleges last year’s vote is invalid due to widespread rigging by government supporters.

“A sea of people is coming to Islamabad and they are peaceful and you cannot stop them,” Khan said Tuesday.

Both men picked Pakistan’s Independence Day for their rallies, the day marking when the country became its own nation carved out of India in 1947. In the opaque world of Pakistani politics, where security services remain powerful, there has been wide speculation that the two men have other internal support, something they’ve denied.

Their representatives met Tuesday to discuss their strategy. Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a former foreign minister backing Khan, said after the meeting that protesters would not resort to violence, but would resist any effort to impose martial law.

“We are working on a national agenda to bring real democracy in the country,” Qureshi said.

Sharif, himself overthrown in the 1999 coup that brought former army chief Pervez Musharraf to power, is taking no chances. He has met regularly with top advisers, and the government has invoked a rarely-used article in the constitution allowing the military to step in to maintain law and order if needed.

In a televised address Tuesday, Sharif said a Supreme Court committee would look into claims of fraud in last year’s election. He also warned that “no one will be allowed to create anarchy and play with the constitution.”

“It is not possible that in presence of parliament, decision should be taken on streets,” he said. “Here is nobody’s monarchy nor here is there any dictatorship.”

After Sharif’s address, Khan said the prime minister would have to resign before any probe.

Hanging over the planned rallies has been the question of whether the Pakistani military has had any role in fomenting opposition to a government with which they have increasingly been at odds.

This nuclear-armed country of 180 million people has had three military coups since independence. The military hasn’t commented on Khan or Qadri but generally says it does not meddle in politics.

Relations between Sharif and the military frayed when the government decided late last year to prosecute Musharraf for high treason. The military also has bristled at accusations that its powerful spy chief was behind the assassination attempt of a powerful television anchor.

Sharif and the military also are believed to be at odds with opening up trade with India, which it has fought in three wars, as well as whether to negotiate with Taliban militants.

But regardless of who is behind the protests, many believe Sharif won’t back down from the challenge.

“This time around he is going to stand his ground, firm and polite, no matter what the consequences,” said Rais, the analyst.

___

Associated Press writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report.

TIME Education

Malala and Sheryl Sandberg Talk Girls’ Education

Malala Yousafzai Opens Birmingham Library
Malala Yousafzai Christopher Furlong—Getty Images

Also, Malala still bickers with her brothers

Sheryl Sandberg hosted a Facebook livestream event Friday with Malala Yousafzai, who answered questions from all over the world about her work to promote education for the 60 million girls worldwide who don’t go to school.

Malala, who became an international human rights leader after she was shot in the head by the Taliban on her way to school in Pakistan in 2012, took questions from Facebook users about terrorism, education and her goals for the future.

When asked how she would change the minds of anti-education terrorist groups like Boko Haram, Malala said, “the first thing is that we should ask ourselves: why do the terrorists become terrorists?” She noted that most terrorist groups are created from poverty and discrimination, but that education can help alleviate both of these causes. “This is why I fight for education, because through education we can fight terrorism, not through guns and not through weapons.”

Malala stayed remarkably on-message during the interview, answering almost every question with an impassioned argument for more girls education or a gracious thank you to her father and mother for supporting her. But there were a few moments where it became clear that, at home, she’s still just a regular 17-year old girl:

“Sometimes my brothers think I’m my parents’ favorite, but I think it’s fine. I think that kind of discrimination is okay.

And then later:

“I have two brothers and they really make me behave like a child… I tell my parents, these boys are fighting with me, and you’re discriminating!”

Teenagers, take note: accusing your parents of discrimination is the best way to win fights with your annoying brothers.

 

TIME polio

The Battle to Eradicate Polio in Pakistan

A Pakistani health worker vaccinates a child in Islamabad
A Pakistani health worker vaccinates a child in Islamabad Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Political unrest in Pakistan has been a gift to the poliovirus, with 99 cases reported there so far this year. But Rotary International, which has already vaccinated 2 billion children in 122 countries, is hitting back hard

Epidemiology can be all about geography—and that’s especially true when it comes to polio. If you live in the U.S., where polio was eradicated in 1979, the specter of the disease has faded almost entirely, though pockets of infections can occur among the unvaccinated. In Pakistan, however, things are moving in precisely the opposite direction, and have been for a while now.

One of only three countries in the world where polio remains endemic (the other two are Nigeria and Afghanistan), Pakistan had been close to joining the world’s polio-free nations, with only 58 infections in 2012. But thanks to bans on vaccinating—and deadly attacks on polio fieldworkers—by the Pakistani Taliban, the caseload rose to 93 in 2013. In 2014, the total reached 99 by July 18—a figure all the more alarming compared to this point last year, when there had been just 21 cases.

“It’s a scary number,” says Aziz Memon, Pakistani chairman of Rotary International’s polio eradication campaign. “Children in North Waziristan have been trapped for three and a half years without a drop of polio vaccine, and that’s what’s causing this.”

The folks at Rotary know what they’re talking about. Since launching their polio eradication effort in 1985, they have been responsible for the vaccination of 2 billion children in 122 countries. Along with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, The Gates Foundation and others, they have helped slash the global infection rate from 350,000 cases per year in 1988 to 416 in 2013.

That’s indisputably good news, but polio is an exceedingly sneaky virus, with 200 symptom-free carriers for every one case of the disease. That fact, combined with the anti-vaccine forces in Pakistan, not to mention the porous borders cause by war and unrest in the overall region, has caused the disease to leak out from the three endemic countries, with stray cases turning up in Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Cameroon, Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. In a handful of other countries, the virus has been detected in sewage, but it has not led to any cases of the disease—yet.

It’s Pakistan though that’s considered ground zero, and Rotary has announced that it’s now deploying some very simple weapons in what has always been a village-to-village, door-to-door battle. To improve surveillance and tracking—a maddeningly difficult job in a country in which so many people live off the communications grid—Rotary has distributed hundreds of cell phones to midwives who circulate through communities, canvassing residents to find out who has received the vaccine and who has been overlooked. Information on the unvaccinated kids—the “missing children” in the fieldworkers argot—is entered into the phones and uploaded to a central spreadsheet, allowing later vaccinators to target their efforts more precisely.

“The midwives also track pregnant mothers,” says Memon. “And when their children are born they can continue to maintain complete health records, not just for polio but for other vaccines and basic health care as well.”

Rotary has also worked with The Coca-Cola Company to build what’s known as a reverse osmosis water plant—essentially a sophisticated filtration facility—in the town of Malin, within the city of Karachi. Polio is a disease spread almost entirely by human waste, and once it leeches into the water system it can spread nearly anywhere. The Malir plant, which was constructed near a school to give polio-age kids the first access to the newly filtered water, is a relatively modest one, with just 20,000 gal. (76,000 liters) of clean water on hand at any one moment, and cost only $40,000 to build. But as a pilot project it represents a very good start. “We can’t build a massive plant like the government can,” says Memon. “This is a small plant for a small community.”

One thing, paradoxically, that’s working in the vaccinators’ favor is the increased number of displaced people in Pakistan. A recent push by the Pakistani military to flush the Taliban from its safe havens has broken the vaccination blockade, and already 350,000 children have received at least one dose of the polio vaccine. But 1.5 million refugees are scattered around the country. Rotary has dispatched field workers to refugee camps and transit points to identify the children and few adults who need the polio vaccine and administer it on the spot.

“The government did not have any idea about what the numbers of displaced people would be,” says Memon. In the refugee camps, he adds, there are at least 40,000 pregnant women, whose babies will have to be vaccinated shortly after birth.

The diabolical thing about polio—and indeed any disease science hopes to eradicate—is that even one case is too many. As long as any wild poliovirus is out there, everyone needs to be protected. It is only when the last scrap of virus has been found and snuffed, that the protective push can stop. That has happened once before in medical history—with smallpox. In the case of polio, it’s tantalizingly close to happening again.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan’s New Antiterror Law Gives Security Forces Unprecedented Power

Pakistan
Pakistan army troops arrive at Karachi airport following an attack by unknown gunmen, disguised as police, who stormed a terminal used for VIPs and cargo, Sunday night, June 8, 2014. Fareed Khan—ASSOCIATED PRESS

The law permits the arrest of terror suspects without warrants and their detention for 60 days without trial. Officials will also be able to issue shoot-on-sight orders

In an effort to curb the increasing audacity of Islamist militant groups in the country, Pakistan’s parliament passed a comprehensive counterterrorism bill on Wednesday that gives unprecedented powers to domestic security forces.

The legislation, called the Protection of Pakistan Bill 2014, has drawn the ire of human-rights groups for its rigor and breadth. Under the new law, the national government can not only arrest suspected terrorists without warrants but also detain them for 60 days without any discussion of trial.

More controversially, it permits police and other security officials to issue shoot-on-sight orders.

“This is perhaps the strongest of the laws that Pakistan has come up with to deal with militancy and terrorism,” Irfan Shahzad, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Studies in Islamabad, tells TIME. “I would not say that outright it is a violation [of human rights], but it certainly raises questions over what rights we Pakistanis have as citizens of this country.”

Thousands have died since the Pakistan Taliban began its present insurgency in 2007, and Islamabad has frequently struggled to contain the bloodshed. It is currently taking the fight to the insurgents in the mountainous region of North Waziristan, but the offensive has sparked a humanitarian crisis, displacing nearly half a million people.

Shahzad says the new legislation has been born out of increasing frustration. “If a government fails to deliver,” he says, “they resort to certain actions that they believe will increase their command over certain groups.”

Among the provisions of the new law are the granting to security forces the power to search premises without warrants, the allowing of tapped phone calls as court evidence and a steep increase in prison sentences for terrorist offenses. While the bill has vocal critics, Shahzad believes that it will be accepted by a population exhausted by years of conflict.

“We’re talking about a country where the literacy rate is just over 50%,” he says. “Even among those who are literate and who read the news, they are very much hard-pressed by the matter of their own survival. [This law] may not necessarily be a major issue to them.”

TIME Pakistan

Unbelievably, There Are Now Refugees Fleeing to Afghanistan

The Pakistani military’s offensive against insurgents in North Waziristan has sparked a humanitarian crisis, with thousands of Pakistanis concluding that Afghanistan is just a far safer place to be right now.

+ READ ARTICLE

The Pakistani military has begun operations against Islamic insurgents in the North Waziristan region, delivering the offensive that Washington has been requesting for a decade, and sparking a massive exodus of refugees — some of whom are fleeing to neighboring Afghanistan to escape the fighting.

Militants, who have long inhabited the mountainous tribal area, have found themselves the target of heavy artillery bombardment and airstrikes for the past fortnight, in what the military’s PR chief Major-General Asim Bajwa termed “the beginning of the end of terrorism in Pakistan.”

Reports began to surface on Thursday in the Pakistani press that ground troops had started moving into North Waziristan to clear out the insurgent forces.

Washington says militants have been using North Waziristan for years as a base from which to attack NATO forces in Afghanistan and to wage a terrorist insurgency against the Pakistani state.

Senior members of the Pakistani Taliban (the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan), the Haqqani Network and Al Qaeda’s central command — along with a smattering of militants from as far away as western China’s Xinjiang province and Chechnya — are believed to be holed up in the area. All are on Islamabad’s kill list.

“For the military, there’ll be no discrimination among Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani network or any other militant group,” Major-General Bajwa told reporters during a press conference in Rawalpindi on Thursday.

The mountainous border dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan has been home to martial tribes for centuries. However, the presence of heavily armed insurgents and foreign jihadis is the notorious legacy of American and Saudi intelligence agencies, who used the fighters as proxy forces during the clandestine war with Soviet troops occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s.

“This is famously the powder keg, which has led to everything going wrong in the region and the beginning of heavily armed militant Islam,” William Dalrymple, the historian and author of nine books on South Asia, tells TIME. “Obviously in retrospect [it’s] one of the great mistakes of American foreign policy.”

The Pakistani secret service (ISI) is alleged to have helped insurgent elements fleeing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, using those militant groups to maintain pressure on the newly formed government in Kabul, which they believed harbored pro-Indian sensibilities.

“The Pakistan Army, or elements within ISI, always continued to support the Taliban as a way of getting rid of the Karzai government and a way of installing a pro-Pakistani Taliban regime in Kabul,” says Dalrymple.

That policy appears to have backfired. In 2007, the Pakistani Taliban launched a fresh insurgency against Islamabad that to date has been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Pakistanis and at least 15,000 security personnel.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif campaigned last year on the promise of peace talks with the Taliban, but any hope of negotiations has been extinguished by a recent string of humiliating attacks, including a brazen assault on Karachi airport, deep in the country’s commercial hub.

The perennially stretched Pakistani state is now attempting to deal with the massive humanitarian fallout from the new offensive. In the less than two weeks of fighting, more than 450,000 people have been internally displaced. Officials estimate that the number will surpass 500,000 soon.

In a bizarre reversal of the norm, tens of thousands of Pakistanis have reportedly flooded into war-torn eastern Afghanistan to escape the fighting on the Pakistan side of the border.

“The [Afghan] government estimates there are over 60,000 thousand for now,” says Babar Baloch from U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees.

The exodus has also ignited fears that the polio epidemic rampant in North Waziristan for two years could spread to other parts of the region.

Meanwhile, analysts have already begun to criticize the new military campaign for not being part of a broader vision of Pakistan’s future.

“There isn’t yet a clear national strategy,” says Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. That means “operations are going to be tactical at best.” He adds: “The civilians were not brought in at the planning stage. And they’re not prepared in any way to take over from the military once the clearing has taken place.”

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