ENCOURAGING

Taliban Losing Popularity Contest

Despite U.S. fears of a Taliban resurgence in Pakistan, the Islamist group could be losing the crucial battle for hearts and minds among the general population. While a year ago, many Pakistanis saw the Taliban simply as religion-minded countrymen, the militants' harsh local rule and use of violence and intimidation to advance their goals is leading to a backlash. Millions of Pakistanis are threatened by military conflict over the Taliban-controlled Swat Valley and many are placing the blame squarely on the Islamists for the dispute. Pakistani officials warn that the government needs to exploit the Taliban's unpopularity quickly or miss out on an opportunity to regain ground. "This is a profound moment in our history," says one local official. "My greatest fear is whether there is sufficient realization of this among people who make decisions."