Pakistani militants struck again on Tuesday, adding to the rise in suicide bomb attacks hitting the country’s populous heartland, Punjab Province.
But while suicide attacks have spiked – apparently in retaliation for the Army's offensives in the northwest in recent months – militant attacks overall have dropped sharply, suggesting that the Army’s efforts to rein in Pakistani Taliban are paying off, though at a cost, not least of all in civilian casualties.
According to the Brookings Institution, the number of monthly militant attacks has slid since June, dropping from more than 250 to about 170. That decline coincides with the first of the Army's two major offensives this year, in Swat Valley.
The decline has been sharpest in the North West Frontier Province, where Swat is located, dropping from about 160 to 70.
These attacks, which Brookings labels as “terrorist/insurgent attacks,” refer to “any attack against civilians or targets within the country by insurgents not participating in a battle against security forces,” explains Ian Livingston, who helped create the index. This includes unprovoked gun attacks, roadside bombings, mortar attacks on outposts, and so on. It also includes some suicide bombings.
The past several weeks have seen an even further drop in attacks, Mr. Livingston says. This decrease came as the Army launched an offensive Oct. 17 against Pakistan's main Taliban faction in their South Waziristan stronghold in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The dropoff is especially sharp in NWFP and FATA, he says.
Suicide attacks up
Whatever military success these figures may imply, civilians are certainly bearing some of the pain. The recent spree of bomb attacks in response to the Waziristan offensive has killed more than 500 people, mostly civilians.
Punjab, Pakistan’s central, largest province, is home to the capital, Islamabad, and the cultural hub of Lahore. It saw almost no suicide attacks through 2006. But it was struck 11 times in 2007, 14 in 2008, and 18 times so far in 2009, according to the Lahore Police Department.
Tuesday’s attack: dual targets
Tuesday's attack took place at what's considered a "gateway" between Punjab and NWFP, underscoring the trend that militants in Punjab are linking up with the Taliban in the northwest, helping them carry out suicide bomb attacks not just in the remote Afghan border region but in the center of the country and in major cities.
The bomb hit a marketplace, damaging several shops as well as a mosque. It also apparently targeted a senior adviser to the provincial chief minister, who has been "very vocal against militants," says Amir Rana, whose nongovernmental organization, the Pakistani Institute for Peace Studies, tracks bomb-attack trends. The adviser, Sardar Zulfiqar Ali Khan, was not at home when the bomb went off.
This story was edited after publishing to correct the spelling of Amir Rana's name.