A fresh wave of violence across northern Pakistan has demonstrated that armed Taliban remain as much a force to be reckoned with as they were before the much-publicized launch of operations by security forces in Malakand in early 2009 and in Waziristan toward the end of the year.
In addition to a brutal spate of suicide bombings and other attacks, the militants have stepped up their school-destruction spree with full impunity in Mohamand, one of seven tribal agencies just north of Peshawar, and in Khyber. The wave of suicide bombings, targeted killings, and attacks on educational establishments are terrorizing local civilians, despite government claims regarding the purported successes of the military operations in Swat and Waziristan.
In fact, instead of wiping out the heavily armed Taliban in these regions, the government's offensive seems to have breathed new life into some older groups, expanding the list of terrorist outfits carrying out attacks. For example, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami -- believed to be a reincarnation of the banned anti-Shi'a group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi -- claimed responsibility for the April 16 bombing of a hospital in Quetta. That attack was carried out just as members of a Shi'ite group arrived at the hospital with the body of a Shi'ite bank manager who had been shot dead by unidentified gunmen shortly before.
The same group claimed responsibility for the back-to-back suicide attacks in the Kacha Pakha district of Kohat, another town in northern Pakistan adjoining the Orakzai tribal agency. According to eyewitnesses, two burqa-clad bombers mowed down 41 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had gathered in front of the UN offices to collect food aid on April 17.
The tactics echoed those used in Quetta. The first explosion resulted in a few deaths and injuries, but a second, more powerful blast struck as people rushed in to assist the injured. The attack was clearly intended to inflict as many casualties as possible and to convey a message to Shi'a that the group remains capable of striking them anywhere in the region.
A similar attack was carried out in Karachi in February when a bus carrying Shi'a was targeted, followed by a second explosion that rocked the scene after rescuers arrived on the scene.
The latest attack came on April 19 in a bazaar in Peshawar. The target was a Shi'ite police officer, but 22 others were killed and more than 40 injured, most of the victims being activists of the religious political party Jamat-e Islami. That party -- believed to be pro-Taliban -- quickly declared that their rally was not the target of the suicide bombing, apparently to avoid a conflict between their organization and the perpetrators of the attack.
Jamat-e Islami rarely condemns suicide attacks or other violence, arguing that such occurrences are the natural consequences of the "wrong policies" of the government and are therefore "justified."
The same day, a bomb exploded in front of a popular school, killing a 5-year-old student and injuring seven others. On April 13, a former municipal official was shot dead with another person in broad daylight in Mingora, the commercial center of Swat, as police and security forces patrolled nearby. On April 5, 53 people were killed during a suicide bombing at a political rally in Timergara.
The Next Battleground
This litany of gory incidents continues despite government claims about the successes of its operations against the Taliban and other terrorists. It is hard to deny that the Taliban remain as serious a force in Swat and Waziristan as they were before the military stepped in.
Moreover, the fresh attacks by Lashkar-e Jhangi al-Alami, which is predominantly a Punjab-based organization whose leadership is mostly from Punjab, against the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is led by Pashtuns from the tribal areas, is another worrisome development. Although the security forces have captured some territory from the TTP in Swat, Waziristan, and Bajaur, the new, even more deadly wave of sectarian violence that has emerged could offset those gains or even reverse them.
Analysts have argued that militants moved from Swat to Bajaur and Mohmand and from Waziristan to Orakzai and Khyber after the government offensives were launched and that they are targeting cities in order to pressure the government. Their strikes have made many question the point of all the air power that has been brought to bear against them if they are clearly able to move en masse from one region to another and quickly set up bases from which to conduct coordinated attacks at will.
If the Taliban are able to move so easily, then it cannot be excluded that Peshawar itself will be the next battleground following the intensification of security operations in Orakzai, Khyber, and Mohmand. Peshawar, it should be recalled, is encircled on three sides by tribal or semi-tribal areas. The larger question remains: If the militants are able to move so freely with their weaponry and with command-and-control capabilities intact, what does this say about the prospects for the government's war on terror? Terrified and war-weary locals in the region have ever reason to wonder if the fighting will ever end.
Daud Khattak is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL