Pakistan is experiencing a fresh spell of violence with shadowy characters once again re-surfacing and re-invigorating old alliances.
The February 13 blast in Lahore is the latest in the series of terrorist attacks carried out mostly in Pakistan’s restive north and southeast during the past three weeks.
Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a faction of the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the February 13 attack. The same group had targeted Christians, mostly women and children, in the city’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in March last year.
Also on February 13, two more bomb attacks were carried out in the city of Quetta and the South Waziristan tribal district, killing two policemen and three personnel of the paramilitary Frontier Corps (FC) respectively. The former attack was claimed by the sectarian Lashka-e-Jhangvi al-Alami, and the latter by the TTP.
On January 21, a bomb blast in Parachinar, headquarters of the strategic Kurram tribal district, killed 24 civilians, most of whom belonged to the Shia sect of Islam. Days later, pamphlets were distributed in the same area, promising a fresh wave of attacks against the Shiites.
In yet another development, a breakaway faction of the once dreaded TTP re-emerged to declare allegiance to the group’s chief Mullah Fazlullah. Commander Khalid Sajna, who parted ways with the TTP after differences over the question of leadership in 2013, recently regrouped to declare jihad against the Pakistani government and the state.
In the past two weeks, small scale Taliban attacks have also been registered in the city of Dera Ismail Khan, and the tribal districts of Bajaur and Mohmand bordering Afghanistan.
Even while I was writing this piece, two more attacks occurred. One blast took place in Peshawar, killing two people and injuring eight, while another in Mohmand tribal district Wednesday morning killed five people. TTP’s Jamat-ul-Ahrar faction claimed responsibility for both, saying more attacks would follow.
Strangely enough, the fresh surge in violence follows the taking over of a new administration in the United States.
Although it is not clear how the sudden increase in terrorist attacks in parts of Pakistan, where the military proudly declared victory against the Taliban last year, will be construed in Western capitals, the fresh wave of violence, if continued, is going to shake the painstakingly-restored confidence of common Pakistanis in the country’s security forces and authority of the state.
Since 2001, Pakistan has conducted numerous military operations against the Taliban in Swat, Bajuar, Mohmand, Khyber, Orakzai, Kurram, and Waziristan with the aim of clearing these so-called sanctuaries of the Taliban. Each operation resulted in displacement of thousands of people, damages to public and private infrastructure, and loss of human life.
However, with a few exceptions, the majority of these operations had mixed results. For example, multiple operations against Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI) under the bus conductor-turned-militant commander Mangal Bagh in Bara area of Khyber tribal district failed to dislodge him from the area. Each operation from 2006 till 2009 resulted in more damages to the civilian population than to the militants.
Similarly, numerous operations in South Waziristan failed to show any positive results until TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud and later on his successor Hakimullah Mehsud were killed in separate strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), locally known as drones.
In Swat, it was the Operation Rah-e-Rast (the Just Path) launched in May 2009 that finally dislodged the Taliban after the failure of two stages of Rah-e-Haq (the Path of Truth). However, Mullah Fazlullah, head of the Swat Taliban, who is now leading the TTP, miraculously survived and escaped from the area.
The failure of several anti-Taliban operations not only shook people’s trust in the security agencies, but also bitterly affected Pakistan’s image abroad, where perception about the country’s “dual approach” toward different Taliban groups had taken strong roots.
It was not too long ago that the then U.S. Central Command chief, Admiral Mike Mullen, termed the Haqqani Network a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, has also questioned Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. He told the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month that the United States’ “complex relationship with Pakistan is best assessed through a holistic review.”
Back in 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a reference to the so-called “good Taliban,” warned Pakistan about keeping “snakes in its backyard.”
That perception, however, slightly changed, at least inside Pakistan, following the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan in June 2014. During that military operation, the TTP, now believed to be turning into an existential threat for Pakistan, was routed along with fighters from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
The military and civilian authorities marked their success against militants by holding sports festivals in several tribal areas to encourage locals, displaced during the days of lawlessness, return to their native towns and villages.
However, the fresh wave of terrorist attacks is seen both with doubts and concerns. The key concern is the return of Taliban violence, while the doubts point toward Pakistan’s sincerity in fighting the militants.
Some local accounts also suggest that the Pakistani Taliban, who had once crossed into Afghanistan to join the Islamic State, are now returning back into the TTP fold mainly because of their disenchantment with the prospects they once thought awaited them under the black flag.
The timing of the freshly-developing security situation is critical. The European countries are gradually limiting their engagement in Afghanistan, while the new U.S. administration has yet to come out with a clear policy line about the region. Russia and Iran, on the other hand, are coming forward in an effort to militate against the U.S. gains.
The Pakistani leadership needs to focus inward and take the militant threat, mostly home grown, head on. There is little chance of assistance from the world in the way Pakistan saw during the past 15 years’ engagement in Afghanistan.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.