Already ravaged by high inflation, massive energy shortages and political turmoil, Pakistan has been shocked by bombings in most of its major cities, writes Mustafa Qadri
Pakistan is enduring the most brutal spate of political violence since the Punjab-dominated Army was implicated in mass slaughter in 1971. Despite military victories in large swathes of the tribal areas that are home to the Taliban, Pakistan’s major cities have been rocked by an escalating series of violent events that, according to one estimate, have claimed 544 lives in a little under three months.
Where once the bombings were primarily concentrated in or near the tribal areas, such as the cities of Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan, these recent bomb blasts and shootings have hit several of the largest cities in the country.
The bombings of the two biggest cities of the Punjab, the most populous and influential of Pakistan’s provinces — Lahore in May and Multan earlier this month — are a sign of this shift. The carnage in Multan was followed by an attack on a mosque in a heavily fortified part of Rawalpindi where many Army personnel traditionally gather for Friday prayers. This last attack left 40 dead, including a major-general and 16 children of senior military officers.
This was the second major attack on Rawalpindi, the city which houses the headquarters of Pakistan’s Army, in as many months. In October, militants attempted to breach Army headquarters, leading to a 22-hour siege and hostage crisis that badly humiliated the country’s senior generals.
The Taliban hail from the remote and poorly developed tribal areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, and not from the big cities. This makes claims that they are responsible for these recent bombings all the more destabilising for Pakistan — but it also has many here querying whether the Taliban actually is responsible for the well coordinated attacks.
Pakistan’s media, religious groups and government authorities rarely use the term “Taliban” when discussing the current violence. That is because in Pakistan the Taliban are still associated with the anti-US resistance in neighbouring Afghanistan. There is also a widespread perception that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that existed before the US-led invasion of 2001 was, although perhaps theologically primitive, an honest political broker that provided the troubled central Asian nation with an unprecedented level of stability and promoted the virtues of Islam.
For observers in the West this may sound absurd. But a little over two decades ago, Islamist militants waging what they considered a holy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan were called “freedom fighters” by then US President Ronald Reagan, (not to mention by Rambo).
For many in Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban inherited the mantle of freedom fighters from the conflict in the 1980s. While the Pakistan security establishment has retained informal links with Afghan Taliban commanders and their allies after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, for their part, the Afghan Taliban has largely avoided the anti-Pakistan insurgency.
Noting this distinction, retired civil and military officials contacted by newmatilda.com say they are sceptical about Taliban involvement in the bombings inside Pakistan. They blame foreign governments, particularly India, the United States and Israel for the current violence.
According to Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik, the senior civilian bureaucrat charged with counterterrorism activities, India is responsible for much of the terrorism.
This claim was echoed by intelligence officials interviewed by newmatilda.com in the national capital of Islamabad and Peshawar, the largest and strategically important city on Pakistan’s northwest frontier. Mufti Zubair Usmani from the Jamia Darul Uloom, in Karachi, the largest mainstream religious seminary in the country, says the Pakistan Taliban “is an instrument of RAW [the Research and Analysis Wing of the Indian Prime Minister’s Office, one of India’s top spy agencies] … Whoever is doing things in Pakistan is doing it to defeat Pakistan [which] happens to be in a strategic location [and] an atomic power. Because of this, the violence will continue.”
Provincial and federal intelligence officials interviewed by newmatilda.com privately deliver remarkably similar conclusions, citing secret intelligence from the interrogation of captured Taliban operatives and other sources that suggest Indian and Afghan government involvement.
Adding intrigue to this already confusing situation, the Pakistan Taliban tends to deny responsibility for some of the bombings, especially those that kill high numbers of civilians. They have even blamed the private military contractor Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, and Pakistan’s own intelligence agencies for the most devastating attacks while taking responsibility for those that target the military.
Both the Army and the Taliban claim to fight in the name of Islam so blaming foreigners and avoiding the more sobering and likely reality that Muslim Pakistanis are killing one another helps both sides rally popular support.
It’s little help in this volatile environment for the US to be openly speaking of escalating its highly destabilising drone war inside Pakistan. Last week, at least 15 people were killed by an American drone assault on a suspected military compound on the border with Afghanistan.
Powerless to control the spiraling violence, it is no wonder that many Pakistanis are convinced that foreigners, and not the Taliban, are the greatest source of instability in their country.