Connect to share and comment

Pakistan attacks point to resurgent extremism

Analysis: Attacks close to the US mission undermine Islamabad's claim that it has broken the back of the insurgency.

An unidentified foreigner surveys the scene of a bomb attack targeting the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, Apr. 5, 2010. Militants using a car bomb and firing weapons attacked the U.S. consulate in the Pakistani city on Monday hours after a suicide bomber killed 38 people elsewhere in the northwest, officials said. Pakistani Taliban militants claimed responsibility for the attack on the consulate, in which eight people including three militants were killed but no one in the mission was hurt. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Fifty funerals were held Tuesday in Timergara, in northwest Pakistan, for victims of the previous day’s suicide bomb attack at a political rally. To the families of those killed, Pakistan’s much-lauded progress against Islamic extremists must have seemed hollow.

Monday also saw a spectacular multi-pronged assault on the U.S. consulate, also in the northwest, in the provincial capital Peshawar. The death toll from that sophisticated terrorist strike rose to eight Tuesday. The consulate was hit by gun fire, grenades and car bombs, though the building itself was not breached and it was Pakistani security personnel, rather than Americans, who died.

So are these the desperate acts of a dying militant movement or evidence that extremism remains alive and potent in Pakistan?

The government has repeatedly stated that it has “broken the back” of the extremists, or at least of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Pakistani Taliban faction. However, the ability to stage complex attacks clearly remains with the TTP, which claimed responsibility for the consulate attack, and its allies.

While Pakistan has reduced the ability of the TTP to take over and hold territory — the group had created fiefdoms in the Swat valley and other tribal areas of northwest Pakistan by early 2009 — an offensive by the Pakistan Army quelled the insurgency.

However, extremists retain the ability to stage terrorist attacks, seemingly at will. Last month, twin suicide bombers detonated themselves in a crowded market in the city of Lahore, in the heart of Pakistan, killing at least 43 people.

Clearly, the TTP has been badly damaged, and the military is right when it says that it cannot immediately tackle the problem on a countrywide basis, so a district-by-district approach is necessary.

Celebrations of progress in Pakistan are, however, not only premature, they are arguably delusional.

“The Peshawar attack required reconnaissance, equipment and manpower, training and money,” said an editorial published Tuesday in The News, a Pakistani daily. “We may have battled the Taliban but they have not been completely defeated. Apparently they have taken casualties but not in sufficient numbers to break them militarily.”

The continuing terrorist threat means that Pakistan, under Western pressure to clear out its tribal belt of Al Qaeda and Taliban, may balk at taking action in the hotspot of North Waziristan. It is North Waziristan that really matters to the U.S.-led coalition fighting next door in Afghanistan, a bastion for Afghan insurgents and Al Qaeda.

“They’ve failed to cope with the TTP, so are they going to open another front, in North Waziristan, against what are essentially Afghan Taliban?” said Muhammed Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an independent research organization in Islamabad.

The prominent militant groups in North Waziristan, which include the Haqqani network, are not at war with Pakistan, so do not pose an immediate terrorist threat to the country.

While the military makes impressive claims for the number of Taliban killed in its operations in South Waziristan and elsewhere in the tribal belt, it is not possible to verify the figures or test the belief of locals that the extremists actually fled the offensive, to North Waziristan, other parts of the tribal area, Balochistan Province or even Afghanistan.