Bombs and tipping points: Pakistan and Northern Ireland

October 30, 2009

When Northern Ireland’s Omagh bomb exploded, killing 29 people, I was in England, by cruel coincidence attending the wedding of a young man who had been badly injured in another attack in the town of Enniskillen more than a decade earlier.

I had just switched my phone on after leaving the church on a glorious, sunny Saturday afternoon when my news editor called. “There’s been a bomb. It sounds bad. We’re trying to get you on a flight.”

Memories of Omagh returned this week when a massive car bomb ripped through a market in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, killing more than 100 people, many of them women and children.

Will the Taliban’s bloody assault on Pakistan’s cities deprive them of popular support and ultimately lead to their defeat?

The BBC’s Urdu service had reported earlier this month that sympathy for the Taliban in Peshawar — where many are deeply hostile to the United States – was waning due to the violence being unleashed on the border city since the Army began its assault on the militants’ South Waziristan stronghold.

Was this a sign the Islamists were overreaching themselves on their war against the Pakistani state, much as they had done in Swat?

Against that, as others have pointed out on this blog, a coherent leadership that might unite a stricken country against its attackers has yet to emerge.

In the immediate aftermath of Omagh there was a widespread fear that the Northern Ireland’s fledgling peace process would unravel in a familiar grim spiral of reprisal and counter-reprisal.

In fact, the opposite happened. Such was the revulsion at Omagh that the “Real IRA”, the breakaway faction behind the attack, was finished as a serious threat.

It can be dangerous and misleading to look for parallels between very different conflicts on opposite sides of the world. But tipping points in seemingly intractable conflicts do happen. The problem is, they are impossible to predict and often only apparent long after the event.

(Reuters photos: Peshawar; Omagh)

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