A new surge of terror

Pakistan is witnessing a new wave of terrorist attacks and with it, hopes of finding a politically negotiated solution to the long-running conflict are fading.

The military has been forced twice in recent weeks to launch retaliatory attacks against the militants’ hideouts in the volatile North Waziristan tribal region bordering Afghanistan. These were the first airstrikes in North Waziristan since 2007, when a ceasefire was concluded between the military and the militants.

In the first military attack in December 2013 in the Mir Ali area, some 73 people, almost all civilians, were killed as the army launched revenge attacks after a suicide bomber struck a security checkpoint and killed a soldier. The incident led to protests by the tribal people in Peshawar and elsewhere as they accused the military of killing civilians, including women and children.

In the latest incident in the third week of January this year, the military claimed to have killed 56 foreigners, mostly Uzbeks from Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and Pakistani militants in airstrikes by the Pakistan Air Force jet-fighters on five villages. Gunship helicopters and long-range artillery were also used to pound militants’ positions. Local Taliban and tribal sources insisted that many civilians were also killed in the airstrikes. Villagers fled the Mir Ali town and adjoining villages as they feared the fighting would intensify and the military would soon launch a ground offensive.

Security officials claimed that the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commander Adnan Rasheed — the mastermind of an attack in 2003 on General Pervez Musharraf, who escaped from prison two years ago during a jailbreak organised by the militants — was also killed in the bombardment. However, it later transpired that he survived the attack. The military’s claims about the death of other TTP commanders Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani and Wali Mehsud were also not confirmed by independent sources. Claims were made that IMU’s Maulvi Farhad, along with 32 other Uzbeks and three German militants, were killed in the bombing, but this wasn’t confirmed by any militant group or the local tribal sources.

Denying that it had finally launched the long-awaited, fully-fledged operation in North Waziristan, the military said the airstrikes were undertaken following reports about the presence of ‘high-value targets’ in the region. Some ministers in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet argued that the airstrikes should be described as ‘retaliation’ instead of ‘an operation’.

The military’s hand was forced after a string of terrorist attacks. A bomb explosion in Bannu army garrison killed 26 soldiers and caused injuries to 30. The devastating explosion occurred in a private vehicle that had been rented by the military authorities to transport troops from Bannu to Razmak in North Waziristan. Questions were being asked as to why the rented vehicle wasn’t properly searched for explosives planted in it.

The Pakistani Taliban, TTP, claimed responsibility for the blast and threatened more such attacks. Intriguingly, soon after the blast the TTP spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, made an offer of peace talks to the government. It was followed by a suicide bombing at an army area in Rawalpindi, in which seven soldiers and seven civilians were killed. A roadside bombing targeting the bus carrying Shia Muslims returning home after a pilgrimage to Iran killed 29 men, women and children. The attack occurred at Mastung near Balochistan’s provincial capital, Quetta, prompting the Hazara Shia mourners to keep the bodies of the dead on the road to herald countrywide protests by Shias demanding protection from the Sunni extremists. The protests ended and the dead were buried after the federal government gave a commitment that the Hazara Shia community would be protected and a sustained action would be undertaken against the Sunni terrorist organisation, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.

So dire was the situation that the Prime Minister had to cancel his visit to Switzerland to attend the annual Davos conference to devote time to the issue of the rising number of terrorist attacks. Visits to hospitals to console the injured followed and a flurry of high-level meetings were held with the military command to devise plans for dealing with the militants.

Though the government continued to offer peace talks to the TTP as its first priority, it was obvious that the military had been given the go-ahead to launch airstrikes against the militants in North Waziristan and the Khyber tribal region’s remote Tirah Valley, which is another TTP stronghold, and plan ahead in case a ground offensive in North Waziristan became inevitable in future. Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan made it clear that talks would be held with militant groups willing to talk, while action would be taken against those carrying out terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile, targeted killings by the Pakistani Taliban showed an upward trend. A senior politician belonging to the prime minister’s PML-N survived an assassination attempt in his native Shangla district adjoining Swat, but Mian Mushtaq from the nationalist ANP was killed, along with two party workers near Peshawar. The ANP, secular and anti-Taliban, has been the main target of the TTP. Its leaders claimed the party has lost more than 800 members in targeted killings carried out by the militants.

Amir Muqam, who is an advisor to the prime minister, remained unhurt in the roadside bombing but six men in his entourage, including three policemen, were killed. It was the sixth attempt on his life. However, it was the first attack on a politician belonging to Nawaz Sharif’s party after he came to power in June 2013. Amir Muqam, who served as a minister in General Pervez Musharraf’s cabinet in the past, is an outspoken critic of the Taliban.

The TTP had earlier celebrated the assassination of senior anti-terror police officer Chaudhry Aslam in Karachi, terming it one of its biggest achievements. The TTP said it felt pride that the police had nominated its new chief Maulana Fazlullah and the group’s spokesman Shahidullah Shahid in the case for ordering the attack that killed Chaudhry Aslam.

In the midst of this mayhem, a 15-year-old schoolboy, Aitzaz Hasan, from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is being hailed as a hero for sacrificing his life while tackling a suicide bomber who wanted to enter his school with the intent to blow up students attending the morning assembly. The federal government announced a gallantry award for him and the provincial government led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s PTI gave his family Rs5 million as compensation, saying that his school and a new sports stadium would be named after him. The student belonged to the Shia sect, which is nowadays under attack by Sunni extremist groups in parts of Pakistan. Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, an outlawed Sunni militant group, claimed responsibility for the attack.

The militants didn’t even spare workers administering anti-polio drops to children and the policemen providing them security. In some places, the anti-polio vaccination campaign was halted due to security concerns. The latest attacks took place in Karachi, where two women and a male vaccinator were shot dead by unknown gunmen riding a motorcycle, and in Charsadda, where six policemen escorting an anti-polio team were killed in a roadside bombing, along with a 14-year old boy. More than 30 such attacks have taken place in Pakistan in recent years, frustrating large-scale efforts to vaccinate thousands of children and eradicate polio. The militants have banned anti-polio vaccination in their strongholds until US drone strikes in tribal areas are stopped. The militants and many parents oppose polio vaccination, as they believe the CIA used and bribed Pakistani surgeon Dr Shakil Afridi to run a fake vaccination campaign to track down al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Pakistan is one of only three countries, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, that still aren’t polio free.

2014 began on a bloody note in Pakistan and it is feared the violence could increase as the US-led foreign forces prepare to drawdown from neighbouring Afghanistan and provide more space to the militants to operate freely on both sides of the Pak-Afghan border. Peace talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban have failed, while the Pakistan government’s efforts to hold a dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban are floundering. This can only lead to more fighting, political instability and human suffering in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

— Rahimullah Yusufzai