A bomb attack on a military convoy that killed 41 people in a northwest Pakistan marketplace yesterday brought the death toll from four days of Taliban assaults to more than 100.
Four army troops and two policemen, along with dozens of civilians, were killed in the mountain bazaar of Alpuri, said Amir Muqam, the parliament representative from the Shangla valley, where the attack took place. It followed an unprecedented Taliban siege on army headquarters Oct. 10.
The wave of violence may bolster public support for the army to launch a U.S.-backed offensive against the Taliban.
It is “a declaration of war that has united Pakistanis in favor” of an army strike on the main Taliban stronghold, Ishtiaq Ahmed, an international relations professor at Quaid-i- Azam University in Islamabad, said before yesterday’s bombing. Such an attack “is only a matter of time,” he said.
The headquarters attack will probably further an eight- year-old erosion of the military’s covert alliance with jihadist groups, Ahmed said. “Slowly but surely, the battle lines between the army and militants are getting clearer,” he said.
The army is ready to strike a major Taliban faction in the mountainous border region of Waziristan, the military spokesman, Major General Athar Abbas, told a press conference yesterday. “It is the government’s decision when to start operations,” he said.
While several Taliban networks use Waziristan as a base to attack U.S.-led forces in neighboring Afghanistan, the group targeted by the army has focused its violence in Pakistan. The group was led by Baitullah Mehsud until his death in a U.S. missile strike in August.
American officials are concerned the area may be a base for terrorists seeking to strike inside the U.S., Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said yesterday.
“We know that those areas are breeding grounds; that’s where the training camps are, some of them anyway,” she said in a Bloomberg interview. “We know now that some Americans have actually traveled over there for training purposes and have returned back.”
The army intercepted a phone call that showed Taliban in Waziristan planned the commando-style raid on army headquarters, Abbas said. The 22-hour siege in Rawalpindi, a city adjacent to the capital, killed 10 soldiers, four civilians and nine out of 10 attackers, he said.
The raid’s leader, Muhammad Aqeel, was wounded and captured, Abbas said. Aqeel, a former army medic, joined in the guerrilla assault on the bus of the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March, Abbas said. He helped in a 2008 suicide bombing that killed the army’s surgeon general, the New York Times reported, citing officials it didn’t name.
Bid to Free Militants
The raiders hoped to capture senior army officers and demand the release of more than 100 “high profile” militants being held by police, Abbas said.
The Taliban ordered one of their groups in Punjab province to conduct the attack, Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq said yesterday in a phone call to the Associated Press. A caller to Pakistan’s GEO television has claimed the attack on behalf of a Punjab-based Taliban affiliate named for Amjad Farooqi, a militant who helped lead the 2002 kidnap and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and was killed by police in 2004.
The assault “is going to change the debate” among national security policy makers, said Hassan Abbas, a Pakistani specialist on the army and militancy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They include the approximately 150 top generals who analysts say guide the armed forces, which have ruled the country for 32 of its 62 years.
Punjab province has a strong militant network that has not previously made such high-profile attacks on the army. The direct attack by militants from there may weaken support in the largely Punjabi officer corps for the area’s militant groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, which India says conducted last November’s terrorist assault on Mumbai.
A judge in the eastern city of Lahore dismissed terrorism charges against Jamaat-ud-Dawa leader Hafiz Saeed, who India accuses of planning the November Mumbai attacks, GEO television said yesterday. The judge said there wasn’t enough evidence.
Punjab’s police department warned the army in July that the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Muhammad groups were working with Taliban to prepare an attack on army headquarters, a Pakistani newspaper, the News, reported on Oct. 5, five days before the assault. The warning predicted militants wearing military uniforms would try to take hostages, the News said.
“This attack is evidence for those who argue that these groups are dangerous enemies for the army and the state,” said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a defense and political analyst in Punjab’s provincial capital, Lahore.
The conclusions of army investigations into the attack will probably affect the U.S.-led effort to quash violent Islamic militancy in the region, said Harvard’s Abbas. In an institution that sees Pakistan surrounded by enemies, army officers may suspect that Afghanistan or India may have encouraged the attack, which would complicate Pakistan’s already tense relations with them, he said.
Pakistan’s Karachi Stock Exchange 100 Index lost 1.3 percent yesterday, the first day of trading after the headquarters raid. The index has risen 64 percent this year after falling 58 percent in 2008, the first annual drop in seven years.
Access interview at bloomberg.com