Pakistan suffered its worst year of terrorist violence last year, with more than 3,000 people killed, as Islamic insurgents, some of them allied with Al Qaeda, targeted civilians and destabilized the country, according to a new report.
The tally compiled by the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, a research organization based in Islamabad, found that terrorist attacks killed 3,021 people and injured 7,334 in 2009. There were 87 suicide bombings amid 2,586 terrorist strikes, a 45 percent increase over the previous year.
Pakistani extremists had been careful to limit their targets to the police and military but toward the end of 2009 they began to hit civilian targets, including Islamabad's International Islamic University and markets in the cities of Lahore and Peshawar.
"The most important trend to emerge was attacks on soft targets," said Abdul Basit, a researcher at PIPS. "The distinction between combatants and non-combatants is gradually disappearing."
The violence far outstripped the bloodshed in neighboring Afghanistan, and the mounting terrorist challenge in Pakistan underscored what appear to be growing ties among Arab, Afghan, Pakistani and other militant groups as Al Qaeda leaders try to relieve the pressure on their refuge along the Afghan-Pakistani border and generate friction between the US and its allies by launching attacks elsewhere.
The attacks in Pakistan, for example, could prompt Pakistani officials to concentrate on the domestic threat and continue to resist the Obama administration's demands that they start attacking Afghan insurgents based in Pakistan.
"What we are seeing in this region is a fusion of (extremist) interests and ideologies. The overriding ideology is that of Al Qaeda," said Imtiaz Gul, the author of "The Al Qaeda Connection. "It is al Qaeda that's connecting people . . . . But can you take them all (extremist groups) on in one go? That's Pakistan's dilemma."
Pakistani forces last year launched their first concerted military response to Islamic extremism since the country sided with the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks, killing 7,945 terrorists, according to the PIPS study.
US unmanned American drone aircraft unleashed at least 51 missile strikes on Pakistani-based extremists, and the study found that the drones killed 667 people and injured 310 — but casualty figures for the strikes vary widely and are considered unreliable.
The current extremist campaign in Pakistan started in summer 2007, after the military stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad, a radical stronghold, and killed some 100 people holed up inside, an event that Al Qaeda seized upon to call for an Islamist rebellion in the country. That insurrection led to the formation of a Pakistani Taliban movement that fought not in Afghanistan but at home, and that linked up with older militant groups in the country.
The study found that a total of 25,447 people, including extremists, were killed and injured in militancy-related violence in Pakistan last year, eclipsing 8,812 such casualties in Afghanistan. In comparison, at the height of the violence in Iraq four years ago, some 3,000 Iraqis were dying each month.
In 2009, for the first time, after Pakistani Taliban took over the Swat valley in the northwest, public opinion turned against the extremists' claim that they were fighting for Islam. That allowed Pakistani forces to launch operations in Swat, and also later in South Waziristan on the Afghan border.
Washington is now pressing Pakistan to send its forces into North Waziristan, a refuge for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
Pakistani officials have pleaded repeatedly that they can't open too many fronts simultaneously, with ongoing commitments in Swat, South Waziristan, other parts of the tribal area, as well as needing to guard Pakistan's eastern border with archenemy India.
Some US military and intelligence officials think their top Pakistani counterparts remain unwilling take on some of the Islamists. The Pakistani army, they note, has been close to certain extremist groups, including two major Afghan insurgent groups led by Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
"There is now a broad realization that militancy as a tool of policy cannot work," said Zahid Hussain, an analyst and author of Frontline Pakistan. "This is going to be a prolonged war."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)