ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan risks a rise in terrorist activity if it lets tensions with India divert its attention and troops away from battling Taliban and Al Qaeda militants along the Afghan border, leading Pakistani newspapers warned Sunday.
Hours after the editorials were published a homicide car bomb targeting voters killed 26 people in that troubled northwest region.
The commentary in some of the Muslim nation's biggest dailies came after reports that the army was redeploying thousands of troops away from the northwest toward the eastern border with India following last month's attacks in Mumbai, which India blames on Pakistani militants. Islamabad also has restricted military leave, but leaders of both countries insist they want to avoid a fourth war between the nuclear-armed rivals.
Pakistan "just cannot afford to redeploy any large number of its troops on the eastern border, leaving the 'wild' west in a free fall," Dawn newspaper, a leading English-language paper, wrote in an editorial.
"Isn't that the area where the world's best intelligence says the extremist militants are holed up in significant numbers and planning to strike targets everywhere? They cannot be allowed a breather at a time when military operations are ongoing to clear the area of their roguish presence."
India and Pakistan insist they do not want to fight, but tensions have repeatedly spiked since the three-day November siege of Mumbai that killed 164 people. India blames the attack on banned Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. Pakistan has detained some alleged masterminds and clamped down on a charity alleged linked to Lashkar, but it has also demanded that India back up its claim with evidence.
Pakistan has been battling militants entrenched in pockets of its northwest for years. It has deployed more than 100,000 troops in the region, which includes the semiautonomous tribal areas where Al Qaeda and the Taliban have flourished. The military is engaged in two major offensives in the northwest, one covering the Bajur and Mohmand tribal regions and the other in the Swat Valley.
But the violence has also spread beyond those areas. On Sunday, a suicide car bomb at a polling station killed at least 26 people and injured 15 more in Buner, a district bordering Swat, police official Beharmand Khan said. The polls were open for a by-election for a National Assembly seat.
Pakistan and India have fought three wars since their independence from Britain in 1947, two over Kashmir, a majority Muslim region in the Himalayas claimed by both countries.
But most analysts say another war is unlikely because both countries have too much to lose. Some speculate, however, that the Mumbai attackers sought to distract Pakistan from its troubles along the Afghan frontier.
The Daily Times, another major English-language paper, urged Pakistan to avoid that trap. "Moving partially or fully out of the tribal areas will leave the fight against the terrorists unfinished," it wrote.
Daily Jang, a major Urdu-language newspaper, put the onus on the United States, which considers Pakistan a critical ally in its efforts to stem the growing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and which has sent envoys to South Asia to try to defuse tensions.
"In this situation, if Pakistan moves even a small number of troops from tribal areas to eastern border, it will certainly have a negative effect on the war on terror," the paper wrote. "It is in the interest of America to stop India from making the situation worse, so that Pakistan is not forced to withdraw all of its troops from tribal areas as a last resort."
Two Pakistani intelligence officials — requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation — said Friday that elements of the army's 14th Infantry Division were being redeployed from Waziristan in the northwest to Kasur and Sialkot, towns close to India.
Witnesses reported seeing long convoys carrying troops and equipment toward India on Thursday and Friday.
Another intelligence official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Saturday that up to 1,300 troops had also been pulled out of the Bajur region. Their final destination was not immediately known.
The army has refused comment on any troop movements, but a senior Pakistani security official Friday denied that soldiers were being deployed to the Indian border.
Pakistan has said it would not launch a first strike, but its troop redeployment was seen as an indication that it will retaliate if India tries to take out militant targets on Pakistani soil.
Pakistan has witnessed scores of attacks on its territory as it has struggled to wrest control of the tribal regions from militants.
In North Waziristan tribal region, police said the bullet-ridden bodies of three people, including an Afghan national, were found Sunday in two villages. Police official Yousuf Khan said the bodies bore notes accusing the victims of being U.S. spies.
Leaders of Pakistan's young civilian government have repeatedly sought to convince the world that they understand the threat.
"We ourselves have accepted that we have a cancer," said Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who marked the one-year anniversary of the assassination of his wife, ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in a gun-and-suicide bomb attack blamed on terrorists.