ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - An ambush of a military convoy that killed 17 troops near the Afghan border Wednesday pushed the death toll in a series of attacks to at least 101 Pakistanis in the past five days - and brought President Pervez Musharraf, according to a local newspaper headline, to a "Moment of Truth."
The Bush administration, after publicly demanding that Musharraf rein in militants linked to al Qaida, on Wednesday threatened to launch attacks into Pakistani territory if it sees fit.
"We certainly do not rule out options, and we retain the option especially of striking actionable targets," said White House spokesman Tony Snow. "But it is clearly of the utmost importance to go in there and deal with the problem in the tribal areas."
Facing domestic political pressure for staying in power while in uniform - he is also the nation's top general - Musharraf has relied heavily on the Bush administration as a source of political support. But with Washington now demanding that Musharraf use force in tribal areas, he is struggling to appear decisive while avoiding a civilian bloodbath or more military carnage.
Musharraf recently moved thousands of Pakistani troops to volatile tribal strongholds like North Waziristan, where a Taliban council said earlier this week it was abandoning a peace deal with the government. It was in that area that a large group of gunmen opened fire on troops Wednesday, killing 17 soldiers and wounding 13, according to military officials.
It was unclear how the militants were able to kill so many soldiers. One military official said a roadside bomb hit a convoy before the shooting started, and another said that snipers were used. Of the 101 Pakistanis killed since Saturday, 79 have been security personnel or recruits slain in tribal regions.
The situation would seem to call for a crushing military response, especially in a part of the world where appearing weak or hesitant is often taken as an opportunity to attack.
But some Pakistanis worry that the military could be stepping into a trap, that to open up a full military assault would only embolden hardcore Islamists in an area famed for supplying the jihadist fighters who helped defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan during the 1980s, and who are currently battling U.S. and NATO forces in that same country.
At the same time, the need for some sort of a crackdown has become increasingly apparent. The latest U.S. intelligence reports say the border regions have become a sanctuary for al Qaida and Taliban leadership planning future attacks against the United States and its allies.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher made it clear at a press briefing in Washington that while the White House supports long-term development of the tribal regions - the United States has pledged $150 million a year for the next five years to help the Pakistani government do so - there is a strong desire for military intervention.
"I think first and foremost we have to remember that some military action is necessary, and will probably have to be taken," Boucher said Tuesday.
Yet recent evidence suggests that sending in the army to confront militants in Pakistan may lead others to take up arms.
When special commando units cinched their cordon around an Islamabad mosque last week, several Pakistani religious leaders warned that a stack of dead bodies in a place of worship - no matter how radical - would risk tumult. The commandos went ahead with their raid, and at least 75 people inside the mosque compound - hardcore Islamic fighters and innocents alike - were killed in two days of heavy fighting.
The operation wrapped up Wednesday, and by Saturday the apparent backlash had begun.
Troops across the border regions were targeted with suicide bombers, machine-gun fire and roadside explosions.
"People in that area are really angry and annoyed with what happened" at the Islamabad mosque, said retired Lt. Gen. Hamid Gul. "If our military moves in there it will have to fight its way through and that will be very bad - you cannot do reconstruction in that sort of environment, and you will lose the battle for hearts and minds."
Many analysts here worry that if the military takes too strong a role, it would risk killing innocents and help al Qaida and Taliban leaders win more support in local villages, paving the way for a push into outlying areas.
"You can't just start bombing and targeting areas with civilians living around there," said Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, a top Pakistani military spokesman. "It would be playing right into the hands of the militants and extremists."
A large Pakistani military operation in the tribal regions, coupled with American officials' calls for action, could lead many Pakistanis to believe that Musharraf is acting as a U.S. surrogate, said analysts and officials in Islamabad. That in turn, they said, would make it easier for radical Islamists to legitimize terrorist attacks as strikes against a Western conspiracy to control an Islamic state.
"The U.S. lawmakers are absolutely oblivious of the ground realities," said Gul, the retired general. But, Gul said, Musharraf's political base has been badly shaken recently - by the controversial suspension of the Supreme Court's chief justice, and then the mosque raid - and he might bend to American pressure to launch large-scale military strikes in the border region.
"He is so weak internally that he needs the American support," Gul said.
It's one of the few things about which many officials in both the government and in opposition parties agree.
"The more the United States approves of such actions, the more problems we have with the public," said one senior Pakistani government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of U.S.-Pakistan relations. "It needs to be purely our own internal matter."
Imran Khan, a former Pakistani cricket star turned political upstart who has been vocal in his criticism of Musharraf, said approximately the same.
"Extremism is rising, because you don't fight extremism with a man perceived as an American stooge, you don't fight extremism with suppression - you fight it with a genuine democratic process," said Khan, a parliament member. "The tribal areas are out of his control, whatever leverage he had is gone now."
The violence has not been limited to the mountain passes of Pakistan's borders.
On Wednesday, at least 15 people were killed and dozens were wounded by a suicide bomber at a political rally in Islamabad. The scene was a panicked rush of shattered glass, pools of blood and police officers picking up bomb fragments and flesh. Witnesses said the bomber detonated near a group of traffic police who were keeping an eye on the crowd.
One man being led out of a local hospital, after seeing the dead and wounded, sagged into his friends' arms and wailed that "Musharraf is a dog." A policeman inside the hospital was lying in his own blood, and missing both legs. He said nothing.
McClatchy Newspapers 2007