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With UN Bombing, Pakistani Taliban Attempts A Comeback

An injured United Nations employee rests outside his agency's office after a suicide blast in Islamabad.
An injured United Nations employee rests outside his agency's office after a suicide blast in Islamabad.
A few months ago, the Tehrek-e Taliban Pakistan (Taliban Movement in Pakistan) was the largest extremist militant organization in the country, effectively controlling large swaths of the western border region with Afghanistan.

Then Pakistan's military launched operations against the group in the northwestern Swat Valley and adjacent Bajaur and Mohmand tribal districts. Some senior Taliban leaders were arrested and the group's influence was said to be much diminished.

But it now appears the group is trying to stage a comeback.

Tehrek-e Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed five people at the World Food Program offices in Islamabad on October 5.

The attack killed four Pakistanis and an Iraqi working for the UN agency and prompted the United Nations to temporarily close its offices in Pakistan. Pakistani officials said the bomber was dressed in military uniform and was allowed past security after asking to use the toilet.

A spokesman for the militants, Azam Tariq, told the Associated Press that they struck the UN agency because foreign aid work was not in "the interest of Muslims."

Experts suggest that the Taliban's claims of responsibility and recent resurfacing of Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud in media interviews suggest that this erstwhile umbrella group of the Pakistani Taliban is eager to make a comeback.

Show Of Unity

U.S. and Pakistani officials had earlier said that Hakimullah Mehsud might be dead following internal squabbles, but he came out to meet journalists in his stronghold of South Waziristan over the weekend.

New Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud speaks to the press on October 4.
Sailab Mehsud was one of the reporters who met the Taliban leader and his key lieutenants. He tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the Taliban leaders used the occasion to dismiss recent reports of splits within their ranks.

He says the Taliban leader was flanked by the group's South Waziristan commander, Waliur Rehman, and Qari Hussain, the alleged mastermind of numerous suicide bombings, in a show of unity.

They vowed revenge for the death of their former leader, Baitullah Mehsud, and said that they were ready to confront any military offensive:

"Hakimullah Mehsud said that they are in good spirits and ready to confront any [military] challenge," Sailab Mehsud says.

"They said that although Baitullah Mehsud's death had saddened and pained our movement, we have emerged out of it stronger and more determined."

How Effective Is Military Offensive?

Hakimullah Mehsud's claims raise questions about the Pakistani military's claimed successes in recent weeks.

Baitullah Mehsud was killed in an alleged U.S. missile strike in early August, His close Uzbek ally, Tohir Yuldash, leader of the shadowy Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, was also reported killed in a similar strike in late August.

In addition, the Pakistani military has besieged a nearly 2,500-square-kilometer region of South Waziristan now controlled by the Taliban since early June, where suspected air strikes by unmanned U.S. drones are intermittently reported to have successfully targeted Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders.

The region is home to the Pashtun Mehsud tribe, which has suffered heavy losses at the hands of extremists and the military operations apparently targeting them.

In what has been dubbed a "decisive offensive" during the past four months, Pakistani security forces have also been launching periodic air and artillery strikes and have sealed the region by moving in fresh troops.

On October 6, General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was in Pakistan for talks with army chief General Ashfaq Kayani.

Military operations continue to target insurgents in North and South Waziristan.
Speaking in Islamabad, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said the government was ready to intensify its efforts in Waziristan.

"If needed and while looking out for the appropriate time, further law enforcement action shall be taken in North Waziristan and South Waziristan," Malik told reporters.

"Obviously, we will not tolerate the violation of the writ of the state, be that in North Waziristan, South Waziristan, or any other part of Pakistan."

No Chance Of Waziristan Action?

But that's not how Pakistani journalist and regional expert Ahmed Rashid sees it. Rashid, who closely follows developments in Waziristan, says that Pakistan is unlikely to go for a decisive battle in the region anytime soon:

"I don't think that the Pakistani military is going to make a decisive push into South Waziristan and particularly, not into North Waziristan where most of the Afghan Taliban are based," Rashid says.

"A real push into South Waziristan is going to need very large number of troops, which will have to come from the border with India. And where 70 or 80 percent of the Pakistan Army is deployed, and I think, that border is still very tense."

Rashid adds that relations between Islamabad and New Delhi are still tense almost a year after the attacks on Mumbai, when commando-style raids by gunmen linked to Pakistani militants killed more than 170 people.

This and other factors, Rashid suggests, are paramount in the Pakistani military's calculations. "Winter is coming and it is getting very colder and there will be snow on top of the mountains soon," he notes. "I think the conditions are just not right for any kind of offensive right now."

Still, anticipating a full-scale military offensive, Pashtun civilians have been trickling out of the Taliban-controlled villages of South Waziristan for months. These displaced civilians are moving toward the relatively safe neighboring districts of the Northwest Frontier Province as questions mount over the fate of their home region.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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