Bomb in Pakistan's Peshawar sharpens prospect of military showdown

A suicide bomb that killed more than 40 people in a Peshawar market capped a week of provocative moves by the Taliban.

Alexandre Meneghini/AP
People look at sharp nails that stuck to a tree at the site of a suicide bombing in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Friday.

A suicide bomber that killed more than 40 people in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar capped a week of provocative moves by the Pakistani Taliban in defiance of a threatened military attack on their headquarters in the tribal region of South Waziristan. A military showdown now seems all but assured.

"We have no other option but to carry out an operation in South Waziristan," Interior Minister Rehman Malik told a local television station. "All roads are leading to South Waziristan. We will have to proceed."

Once again, it is ordinary ethnic Pashtuns caught between the traded blows and bravado of the militants and the state.

"Earlier there may have been some sympathies toward these Taliban or Al Qaeda, but … a reaction against them has been emerging," says Ijaz Khattak, a professor of international relations at Peshawar University. "There is a general view coming forth – one that isn't properly represented yet – where people simple ask, 'How do we get rid of these people?'"

At the same time, he adds, "people are losing confidence in the state's ability to provide them any protection."

The bomb struck Khyber Bazaar, a historic market frequented by lower- to middle-class shoppers. More than 100 people were also wounded in the blast.

The city's famed carpet merchants – many of whom are Afghans who fled their country's civil war – are starting to pack up their shops and leave.

"They are thinking about moving back to Kabul because it's safer," says Michael Prato, an Australian carpet trader who operates out of Peshawar. Others are heading to the Gulf or to Lahore to take advantage of the growing Indian market.

"There's a general feeling of exasperation" at both the government and the Taliban, says Mr. Prato. "They are fed up with being fined [for] short beards [by the Taliban]…. The professional class are fed up with people back in their own tribe who they grew up with and who are now running around [with guns]."

Professor Khattak is particularly frustrated with moves by the government to collectively punish the Mehsud tribe based in South Waziristan. The approach is part of a century-old regulation for enforcing order in the autonomous region. In this case, says Khattak, it's unrealistic for the government to expect ordinary Mehsuds to be able to resist experienced and heavily armed fighters who have descended on their territory from all over the world – including Arab countries, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan's Punjab Province.

Mehsuds might more aggressively resist the militants in their midst if they could count on the full support of the military and security agencies, says Khattak. At the moment, the military is talking about an offensive but people on the ground see no build-up of forces, which is deepening people's skepticism.

A similar paralysis struck the districts of Swat and Buner before the military offensive there this spring. Now, notes Khattak, residents of those districts are doing some of the antiterrorist work themselves.

"Once people are reassured that the state is serious about the extremists, then people may react," says Khattak. "Most probably, in my personal view, the government is serous this time. The government doesn't have a choice. If there is any weakness this time, the state will lose total credibility. However, there is no action yet seen on the ground."

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