The Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan took further revenge on Thursday for the military campaign launched against it by the Pakistani military in the Swat Valley, by setting off bombs and ambushing police and security forces in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing 12 and wounding 250. These attacks came on the heels of a major bombing in the eastern city of Lahore, a six hour train ride away, on Wednesday.
Rural, tribal Taliban leader Hakimullah Mahsud told Reuters before the Peshawar bombings, “We plan major attacks against government facilities in coming days and weeks . . . “
Peshawar (pop. 3 million) is the major city in the North-West Frontier Province, and on the way to Afghanistan via the Khyber Pass to its west. It is not a Taliban stronghold, and indeed its population mostly voted for a secular Pushtun-nationalist party in the Feb. 2008 elections. There is a strong divide between the new part of the city and the old. Thursday’s attacks were in old centers like the Story Tellers’ Bazaar (Qissah-Khwani Bazar).
There was also a Taliban attack elsewhere in the North-West Frontier Province in the small town of Dera Ismail Khan, which has a significant Shiite population, and which killed 2 persons. (Taliban are hyper-Sunni and hate Shiites, and there have been many assassinations and bombings in D.I. Khan in recent years).
Although some commentators are suggesting that Thursday’s attacks show a new level of coordination by the Taliban, I disagree. There have been several highly sophisticated attacks on NATO warehouses and convoys in this region that deployed much more firepower and were more sophisticated in design.
The most sophisticated element in the recent violence is that the Taliban who struck Lahore obviously had excellent information about where the offices of the Inter-Services Intelligence were. That intelligence agency is in charge of Pakistani security and so must have been planning and supporting the current campaign against the Taliban. Hence the attack on its HQ on Wednesday morning.
Two other important points. The Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and some parts of the North-West Frontier Province are a small, rural social movement, but a social movement nevertheless. But the bombings in Lahore and Peshawar were mere terrorism. Terrorism is a sign of weakness, not of strength, and is an attempt to level the playing field by a group that is out-gunned and outnumbered. If the Taliban can be demoted to a mere terrorist organization, that is a major political victory for the Pakistani government.
While is is possible that the public will blame the government for stirring up so much trouble with the Swat campaign, it is also possible that the public will turn decisively on the Taliban. There are precedents for such loss of popularity. After the 1997 attack on innocent tourists in Luxor, Egypt, the Egyptian public turned against the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Grouping (al-Gama’a al-Islamiya), the two small terrorist groups that had committed many acts of violence in the 1970s and 1980s and had assassinated President Anwar el Sadat in 1981. EIJ declined into irrelevance in Egypt, and al-Gama’a al-Islamiya’s leadership has renounced violence.
Likewise the attack by the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi group on tourist hotels in Amman, Jordan, in fall of 2005, turned the Jordanian public against Muslim radicalism. It turns out Jordanians were proud of their great hotels, and benefit from tourism, and they really dislike terrorism on their soil.
Still, residents of the North-West frontier Province who managed to return to Sultanwas and nearby cities are said to be furious at federal government for damaging their domiciles in the first place. This development is very bad news.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani government continued its campaign against Taliban elements in Swat. One thing that puzzles me is how small the casualty numbers are on a daily basis in the war zone.
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