By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 12 -- At summer's end, there were hints of optimism in the battle against Pakistan's Islamist insurgents. The military said it had routed the Taliban from the verdant Swat Valley. A CIA missile had killed the Pakistani Taliban's chief -- so shaking the group, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials said, that his likely successor was killed in a duel for the top spot. Bombings slowed.
But that successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, is alive, a military spokesman said Monday. And as a spate of mass-casualty attacks during the past week has proven, so is the Taliban.
"They have been able to regroup, and they now feel confident to take on the Pakistani state in the cities," said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a professor and security analyst in Lahore. "They want to demonstrate that they have the initiative in their hands, rather than Pakistani authorities. So it's a real kind of war."
As if to punctuate that point, the edge of the Swat Valley became the setting Monday for the fourth major attack in eight days. In a Shangla district market, an adolescent strapped with explosives detonated himself near an army convoy, killing 41 people and wounding dozens, military officials said.
The blast came two days after a stunning attack by militants on the armed forces' headquarters in Rawalpindi, which killed 23. A day before that, about 50 people died in a car bombing in Peshawar. Last Monday, a suicide bomber killed five people at an office of the United Nations.
The surge in attacks comes at a delicate time for Pakistan's civilian government, which is struggling to contain a public relations fiasco over conditions placed by Congress on a massive U.S. aid package. The legislation granting the aid exhorts Pakistan to do more to control its armed forces and to fight Islamist extremists -- stipulations that critics, including the military, view as micromanagement by the United States.
In a statement given to the Associated Press on Monday, a Taliban spokesman called the attack on the military headquarters a "first small effort, and a present to the Pakistani and American governments." He said it was vengeance for the killing of the group's leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in August.
As the Taliban has regrouped in recent months, the military became the obvious target, analysts said. The Swat Valley operation buoyed the military's image, and it has been vocal about a planned ground offensive in South Waziristan, a Taliban and al-Qaeda haven along the Afghan border. Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, a military spokesman, said that "more than 80 percent" of recent attacks in Pakistan have been planned there.
The assault on the military headquarters also was planned there, he said. But he said the fighters who carried it out were from a Taliban-allied sect based in Pakistan's Punjabi heartland.
Punjabi militant groups have long existed, but in the past they were nurtured by intelligence agencies to focus their attacks on Pakistan's archrival, India. Their alliance with the Pashtun-dominated Taliban indicates they are now "up for hire," and represent yet another foe, military analyst Shuja Nawaz said.
"Their involvement means that their break with the military and the [intelligence services] is now complete," said Nawaz, head of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. "The question is: Will the military have the capacity to take operations against them?"
Previous military offensives in South Waziristan have failed, and the attack on the army headquarters -- which security forces had warned about, Pakistani newspapers reported -- raised doubts about the army's readiness.
But Abbas argued that the assault highlighted the capability of security forces, who prevented militants from venturing far into the compound and rescued 39 of 42 hostages. Military officials were "still judging the situation" in South Waziristan and waiting for the "right time," he said.
The United States has encouraged the offensive into the region, which it views as a hornet's nest of insurgents who focus their violent campaign both within Pakistan and beyond. U.S. officials may think Pakistan is not sufficiently concerned about extremism, one opposition politician said Monday, but the attacks of the past week should leave little doubt that the state knows it is vulnerable.
"If the power of bullets becomes the order in politics, we are all out of business," said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for the Pakistan Muslim League-N. "We only have to make sure we fight this war in the right way, and we don't make it look like an American war. It has to have local ownership."
Special correspondent Haq Nawaz Khan contributed to this report.