Islamic militants increasingly targeting Pakistan
PESHAWAR, Pakistan: Along the Afghan border, not far from this northwestern city, Islamic militants have used a firm foothold over the past year to train and dispatch suicide bombers against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
But in recent weeks the suicide bombers have turned on Pakistan itself, carrying out six attacks and killing 35 people. Militant leaders have threatened to unleash scores more, in effect opening a new front in their war.
Diplomats and concerned residents see the bombings as proof of a spreading "Talibanization," as Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, calls it, which has seeped into more-settled districts of Pakistan from the tribal areas along the border, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have made a home.
In Peshawar and other parts of North-West Frontier Province, which abuts the tribal areas, residents say English-language schools have received threats, schoolgirls have been warned to veil themselves, music is being banned and men are told not to shave their beards.
Then there is the mounting toll of the suicide bombings. One of the most lethal killed 15 people in Peshawar, most of them police officers, including the popular police chief.
The police, on the front line of the violence, have suffered most in many of the suicide attacks, diplomats and officials say.
They are increasingly demoralized and cowed, allowing the militancy to spread still further, the diplomats and officials warn.
Suicide bombings are not new in Pakistan. There have been several high- profile cases linked to Al Qaeda in which bombers have tried to kill Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, and singled out foreign targets, including French engineers and the U.S. Consulate in Karachi.
But indiscriminate terror, sown by lone bombers with explosives strapped to their chests wandering into a crowd, is a new experience for Pakistanis, and it has shocked and angered many here.
"Are these attacks isolated incidents of fanatic wrath, or is it some widespread coordinated effort to intimidate the state itself?" asked The Nation, a national daily newspaper, in an editorial after the latest bombing against an anti- terrorist judge in Multan.
"Coordinated or not, these are dangerous times to be seen as representatives of the state; the militants are driving home a point."
The attacks all stem from the tribal area of Waziristan, according to a senior government official, who asked not to be named because investigations are continuing. There, he said, groups supporting jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan, sectarian groups and militant splinter cells have morphed into a kind of Hydra.
"They are all there in South Waziristan's Wana region," the official said. "It's no longer an Afghan-only problem. It has become as much a Pakistan problem, too."
Still, it remains unclear if there is a single strategy behind the suicide bombings. Some have been apparently sectarian in nature, part of a decades- old problem in Pakistan between extremist Shiite and Sunni groups.
But militants allied with the Taliban and Al Qaeda appear to be behind four of the six most recent attacks, acting in retaliation for military strikes by Pakistani forces against their groups in the tribal regions.
Of those, at least three attacks trace back to Baitullah Mehsud, a militant commander based in South Waziristan, who is known to have sent suicide bombers from his mountain redoubt to Afghanistan, police officials said.
A former fighter with the Taliban, Mehsud said his main desire was to fight U.S.-led coalition and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He struck a peace deal with the Pakistani government in 2005, agreeing not to attack Pakistani forces as long as he could continue his jihad across the border.
But under increasing pressure from the United States, and acting on a tip from U.S. intelligence, Pakistani authorities sent helicopters to strike at a presumed hideout of his followers on Jan. 6, killing eight people.
Mehsud vowed revenge, and several of the recent suicide bombings are believed to be in retaliation.
A suicide bomb attack on a military convoy on Jan. 22 was carried out by Mehsud's men. Another attack by a bomber on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on Jan. 26, which killed a police officer, was attributed to Mehsud as well. So was an attack that killed a police officer in Dera Ismail Khan on Jan. 29, police officials say.
Musharraf vowed at a Feb. 2 news conference to go after Mehsud. But the governor of North-West Frontier Province, Ali Muhammad Jan Aurakzai, preferred to send a delegation of elders to talk to him. The militant commander later denied any involvement, but the bombings slowed.
But a security official said other leads pointed more to another militant group, Tehreek Nifaz-e-Shariat Mohammadi, aimed at setting up Shariah, or Islamic law, which is active in the tribal areas north of Peshawar.
The movement closely supports the Taliban and is linked to Al Qaeda. It was almost certainly behind the suicide bombing that killed 44 military cadets in November in Dargai, in retaliation for an airstrike against a religious school run by one of its members in the tribal area of Bajaur, officials said.
A girls' high school in Mardan was recently warned that the girls should veil themselves or stay home, a tactic typical of groups like Tehreek Nifaz-e- Shariat Mohammadi. Four English-language schools closed for four days last month after the police learned of another possible threat.
"These are acts of terror to psychologically defeat the people to accept the force of the Taliban and the ways of the Taliban," said Latif Afridi, an opposition politician and a member of the provincial bar association in Peshawar.
The creeping militancy has frustrated government agencies, who disagree over what to do about it, according to one intelligence official.
There is consensus that a large-scale military operation, like the kinds that have failed in recent years, is not the solution. But critics say that the series of peace deals that the government struck with tribal leaders and militants in South and North Waziristan has not worked either.
For instance, according to another Western diplomat, Musharraf knows the North Waziristan agreement is only 20 to 30 percent effective, but he continues to back it for lack of another plan.
The accord has brought some order to the area's capital, Miramshah, according to officials with knowledge of North Waziristan. It has also forced a split among the militants, with the more aggressive followers of Mehsud and their Qaeda allies congregating in the town of Mir Ali, they said.
Some officials are now arguing that the government should move against the militants in Mir Ali, while supporting the more reasonable ones.
One practical solution is to train local tribesmen to buttress the Frontier Corps, which polices the tribal areas and could be used as a buffer to protect the settled neighboring districts.