Are the Pakistan Taliban charting an independent course?
For some weeks now there have been persistent reports about Taliban leader Mullah Omar, asking fighters in the Pakistani Taliban to stop carrying out attacks there and instead focus on Afghanistan where Western forces are being bolstered.
The reclusive one-eyed leader had in December sent emissaries to ask leaders of the Pakistani Taliban to settle their differences, scale down activities in Pakistan and help mount a spring offensive against the build-up of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a report in the New York Times said as recently as last week.
But the attacks haven’t stopped. If anything they have become even more brazen, with the Sri Lankan cricket team attacked in Lahore earlier this month and then Monday’s rampage through a police academy, again in Lahore. Between these two major attacks, there has a been suicide bombing in a mosque in the northwest near the Afghan border, a car bombing outside Peshawar and a blast in Rawalpindi, turning March into one of the bloodiest months in recent times.
And on Tuesday, Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in a rather rare move, claimed responsibiity for the storming of the police training centre in Lahore, destroying whatever was left of Mullah Omar’s reported calls for cooling off in Pakistan.
Is Mehsud going off-message ? Or is he setting another course?
Mehsud told a Reuters reporter that the attack on the police academy was to avenge U.S. missile strikes by unmanned aircraft. These Predator drone raids have been focused on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) including South Waziristan, his base. According to U.S. army officials these attacks have taken a toll, accounting for a significant number of senior al Qaeda figures.
Mehsud has threatened more attacks, including in Washington which last week announced a $5 million reward for information leading to his location or arrest. So what really is behind the stepped up attacks inside Pakistan? Are the Pakistani Taliban, an off-spring of the Afghan Taliban, falling instead into an ever deeper thrall of al Qaeda?
By most assessments, Al Qaeda is encouraging a Taliban insurgency in Pakistani tribal lands bordering Afghanistan, and seeking to destabilise the Muslim nation of 170 million people. But these attacks have taken place in Lahore deep in Punjab, which is really the heart of the Pakistani establishment.
And they come just as U.S. President Barack Obama has made Pakistan the central front in his war on Islamist militancy in the region, prompting some to wonder if the militants’ game plan is to draw the U.S. deeper into Pakistan.
Monday’s attack in the Punjab capital should prompt concern about the internal stability of Pakistan, writes Nathan Hodge in Danger Room, pointing out it came less than a month after the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked in the same city.
“While Pakistani forces marked the recapture of the facility with celebratory gunfire, a serious question looms: Could the United States become more directly embroiled in Pakistan’s internal affairs?”
Obama told an interviewer over the weekend that there were no plans to deploy combat troops inside Pakistan in the hunt for al Qaeda.
U.S. strategy in Pakistan is supposed to centre on a significant boost in civilian aid, along with continued military assistance and the occasional U.S. drone attack. “But when you say you’re going after al Qaeda and its allies in the region, you are potentially expanding the roster of militant groups on the “to do” list,” Hodge says.
[Photos of police with a suspected militant involved in Lahore police centre attack and an Afghan refugee protester outside a conference on Afghanistan at The Hague]