The year 2009 ended with the deadly suicide strike on the Muharram procession in Karachi. Regardless of who did it, the incident underscored that unscrupulous death merchants continued their demolition and destruction mission in Pakistan. The past 12 months marked another traumatic and violent period that left a gory trail of death and destruction, manifest in the roughly 80 suicide attacks and close to 500 bomb explosions and improvised explosive devices’ (IEDs) detonations, largely in the Frontier and FATA regions. Until 2001, one must underscore, Pakistan had not experienced a single suicide strike but by end of 2009, Pakistan was seething under a wave of reckless suicide attacks never witnessed before. During the year 2007, it was a strike a week, in 2008 those numbers rose to at least 62 and in 2009 about 80 bombers either walked into or drove explosive-laden vehicles into crowded places such as mosques, markets or security installations to wreak havoc on human likes. This took the total number of suicide strikes since March 2002 to roughly 217. The civilian casualty figure for the last eight years or so also reached a staggering 25,000, which includes militants, police, military personnel and civilians.
During the last six months of 2009 radical militants led by al Qaeda seemed to had put Pakistan on fire, unleashing a string of suicide attacks that wrought havoc from the northwestern regions to capital Islamabad/ Rawalpindi to northeastern town of Lahore.
One of the deadliest of these attacks took place on March 27 at a mosque in the tribal Khyber agency; as close to 200 people began offering Friday prayers, the bomber pulled the trigger of his suicide jacket, leaving behind a trail of death, claiming as many as 85 lives. Another similar attack in a busy market in the heart of Peshawar – Khyber bazaar – took almost 150 lives in October 2009, followed by another brazen suicide strike in the crowded Meena Bazar, Lahore, took almost 50 lives a couple of days later.
During the year, terrorists surprised the security establishment with their new tactics i.e. commando-style attacks involving several attackers. On March 3rd a attack, first on the Sri Lankan cricket team and then on the Manawan Police Training Academy on the outskirts of Lahore on March 30th, the October 10 raid on GHQ, the Dec 4 similar surprise assault involving several terrorists on the Parade Lane Mosque in Rawalpindi bore the hallmarks of the Fidayeen Attacks that the Lashkar Taiba had tried out in the Indian Kashmir. The same technique was applied also on the ISI facility in Multan on December 10, thereby underscoring that a sophisticated violent campaign has been underway to inflict damage on the Pakistani security apparatus and spread terror all over Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, the death of a US soldier in southern Afghanistan off an improvised explosive device (IEDs) on Dec 27 took 2009’s international military casualties to 506, up from 295 in the previous year. The tally came from the independent website icasualties.org, which tracks military deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of those deaths, 310 have been Americans; double that of 155 American fatalities in 2008, making 2009 as the deadliest so far in the battle against the Taliban-led insurgency. As many as 940 U.S. soldiers have died in the U.S.-led Afghanistan War so far, while by the end of 2009 the total fatalities of coalition troops since late 2001 mounted to 1,553.
The picture that emerges from the trail of terror in Pakistan is extremely disturbing in the context of the US president Barack Obama’s Af-Pak policy that he had announced on March 27. It had promised a new beginning but within two weeks of this announcement, Pakistan experienced a dramatic surge in violence; from Waziristan to Peshawar to Lahore to Islamabad and Chakwal, dozens of people perished, either in suicide attacks or in drones strikes. The primary target of the suicide bombers were either police or paramilitary forces, while the drone-fired Hellfire missiles targeted al Qaeda operatives in hiding in various pockets of FATA.
These bombings shook the entire nation, with Peshawar, which has endured 20 of the 80 suicide attacks the past year. Peshawar and its surrounding towns are still bearing the brunt of the reign of terror, with the last quarter of 2009 soaked in blood as suicide bombers struck about a dozen times, said to be a reaction to the operations in Swat and South Waziristan.
Although a US Hellfire missile took out Baitullah Mehsud, the icon of terror, in an August 5 drone strike on his house in Zangara, south Waziristan, the TTP kept the heat on and claimed responsibility for almost every attack.
As far Afghanistan, once the additional 30,000 US and several thousand extra troops pledged by NATO allies under the Dec 1 Obama plan land there, the number of foreign troops deployed will swell to some 150,000. This also has aroused fears that the intensified campaign against anti-government militants may result in higher casualties and escalation in hostilities both sides of the Durand Line. Pakistan army, already pursuing militants almost all over FATA with about 150,000 regular and para-military forces, fears an influx of militants, once the US-led ISAF forces apply pressure in Helmand, Zabul, Paktia, Paktika and Kunar provinces of Afghanistan.
This may synch in with the pincer approach that the US and NATO force have adopted i.e. to squeeze militants from both sides of the border with the active cooperation of the Pakistan army. This also means a heavy reliance on the military surge and an automatic vociferous reaction from all shades of militants – al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban and Pakistani versions of the Afghan Taliban.
In Pakistan, the wave of reaction has always been bloody; violence spiked dramatically after the July 10, 2007 Red Mosque Operation as well as after the Swat and Waziristan operations in 2009. The spiral of violence also suggests that force and the presence of foreign troops is not the answer to the current spate of violence. On the contrary, their presence (Afghanistan) and pressure and drone attacks (Pakistan) seems to be fuelling the insurgency. That is why the US and allies, including the embattled Pakistani government need to review the level of their military engagement in a conflict that is primarily political and requires a politically-guided engagement with all the stake-holders. While on the tactical level, groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan must be dealt with an iron hand; the government needs political strategies for the medium and long term to create local ownership of the structures that are being put in place following the military operation. The military can only do the fire fighting. Lasting peace and rehabilitation has to come from the civilian administration and politicians. The same is true for Afghanistan, where the Karzai government is largely seen as an extension of foreign troops and not as an independent and credible dispensation.
(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. And the author of a recent Penguin publication “The Al-Qaeda Connection – Taliban and Terror in Tribal Areas.”