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.
At a recent meeting — “jirga” — of tribal elders from South Waziristan with government officials, the elders refused to agree return to their homes. Most of the population of South Waziristan fled when the Pakistani Army operation kicked off there last October. The elders feared that the Taliban remained in the area and would take their revenge on the returning population. Not getting the answer they wanted, Pakistani officials cobbled together another jirga of hand-picked “elders,” who complied.
While the army may now be sincere, its history of double-dealing and secret agreements with the extremists means that the locals are highly skeptical.
While Pakistan’s actions in the northwest have grabbed headlines around the world, what has gone almost unnoticed is its inaction elsewhere in the country, especially in the heartland province of Punjab. There, an alphabet soup of banned militant groups that pre-date the Pakistani Taliban, such as Jaish-e-Mohammand, Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Taiba, continue to operate unmolested. Those groups have strong and well known links with the Taliban.
Part of the problem is that law and order comes under the provincial government, not federal administration in Islamabad. Punjab is not run by Pakistan Peoples Party, which rules in Islamabad, but by the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, which has shown itself to be little interested in disturbing the hornets nest of militant outfits entrenched across the province.
In recent by-elections in two constituencies in Punjab, the votes of Sipah-e-Sahaba supporters were actively courted by Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, and, to a lesser extent, by the Pakistan Peoples Party. It showed how much the group is part of the social and political fabric.
A year ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Pakistan of “abdicating” to the Taliban. That criticism no longer stands. But neither can it be said that the extremists have been broken. The world is now watching to see if Pakistan is able to finish the job it started.