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Former Eckerd College president: Pakistan violence likely to backlash on Taliban

ST. PETERSBURG — Wednesday's car bombing of a crowded Pakistani marketplace is likely to rebound against Taliban militants thought to be responsible, former Eckerd College president Peter H. Armacost said Thursday.

Armacost runs Forman Christian College in Lahore, one of Pakistan's premier universities.

Mainstream Pakistanis have no love for the United States and view their own government as corrupt and incompetent, he said, but a month of escalating terrorist attacks against police and civilians has them cheering on a recent army campaign against the Taliban.

"More and more people are saying, 'We've got to do something about this.' They hope the government will stay the course but they worry that it won't,'' Armacost said.

He spoke to the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club about his experiences running the university, which he took over seven years ago.

Founded in the 1800s by Presbyterian missionaries, Forman educated many of the country's leaders. Most of its students are Muslim.

Pakistan is poor, with an average family income below $1,000 a year, Armacost said. Food and fuel prices have skyrocketed in the past sixth months, and most of the federal budget pays for a military built for defending the country against India.

"Credibility in the government is nonexistent'' no matter which party is in power, Armacost said.

Three views of the United States predominate, he said:

People love Americans but hate the U.S. government, viewing the invasion of Iraq as either an anti-Muslin push or an oil grab.

They see the United States as a fair-weather ally, which uses other countries for its own purposes.

And they believe the war on al-Qaida is America's problem, not theirs. They don't particularly care about Afghanistan, nor how the war there progresses so long as it doesn't spill across their borders.

Until last spring, Pakistanis often held favorable views of religiously extreme Taliban militants operating in remote areas, Armacost said. The Taliban often provided food and clothing to the poor and swift justice to wrongdoers — benefits the central government did not offer.

Then last spring, the Taliban "overplayed their hand'' in the Swat Valley, he said.

They took over territory within 60 miles of the capital of Islamabad and began "treating women shabbily'' including a two-minute flogging of a 17-year-old woman that was secretly recorded on a cell phone and broadcast on national television.

When the army drove the Taliban out of the Swat Valley and continued to pursue them into mountainous tribal areas, most Pakistanis approved, he said.

"It's going to be a long and protracted battle.''

In retaliation to the army's campaign, militants have stepped up car bombings and suicide attacks all over the country. Ten attacks have occurred in October, including Wednesday's market bombing in Peshawar that killed 105 people, many of them women and children.

The attack brought the death toll from terrorist bombings or commando-style raids to more than 300 in October alone. The death toll is about 538 for all of 2009.

This violence is "a last-gasp effort to scare people and undermine the government,'' Armacost said.

But he lives in a Muslim neighborhood and works with a mainly Muslim faculty and hears sentiment turning against the Taliban.

"People were so angry at the government until this violence came along,'' he said. "It's a last- gasp effort to scare people and undermine the government. But I think it's going to have the opposite effect.''

Former Eckerd College president: Pakistan violence likely to backlash on Taliban 10/29/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 30, 2009 8:41am]

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