'Not Just Creeping Talibanization'

Deals inked with militants in the scenic Swat Valley and in the troubled South Waziristan district of the tribal belt appeared to be in jeopardy this week after members of the Taliban Movement of Pakistan, known by its Urdu language acronym TTP, killed more than two dozen members of a pro-government peace committee on Wednesday.

The dead bodies were found dumped along the road either shot or with their throats slit, brutal killings that shocked this nation of 170 million where there had been overwhelming support for talks with the Taliban.

Maulvi Umar, a spokesman for the TTP, described the dead, all members of a rival tribe, as "criminals."

Among ordinary Pakistanis there is concern that a return to military action against the militants could spark renewed terrorist violence here. Suicide bombings left hundreds dead in 2007, most famously the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was campaigning on a platform to end extremism.

Her party swept to power following her death on Dec. 27, but many western officials describe a leadership void in Islamabad where party leaders in the ruling coalition have dithered for three months over proposals to impeach President Musharraf and debated whether to restore Supreme Court judges the former military ruler sacked last March.

Soaring food and fuel prices have sparked street protests and sent the Pakistani rupee into a tailspin. Federal officials have issued conflicting statements about their plans for solving the myriad problems and launched no initiatives to actually do so.

Washington is worried about the state of drift. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has blamed Islamabad's inaction on a 40 percent increase in violence across the border in Afghanistan where more than 30,000 U.S. troops are fighting as part of the NATO-led Coalition.

"The ability of the Taliban and other insurgents to cross that border and not being under any pressure from the Pakistani side of the border is clearly a concern," he said this week.

On Wednesday, the federal government appeared to concede negotiations weren't working. The federal cabinet handed responsibility for quelling militancy back to the Pakistan military, authorizing the military chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani to tackle problems in the northwest as he saw fit.

Western officials also worry Islamabad's inaction has given foreign militants space to grow stronger, and fear al Qaeda fugitives hiding out in the tribal areas are plotting fresh attacks against the West.

Of most concern is the rapid advance of the Taliban across nuclear-armed Pakistan.

"I am gravely worried about the future of this country," said Massood, the former defense secretary. "There has to be military action taken with support of the people, or before long, we will not be able to stop this."

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