Pakistan Taliban bombing spree could spur backlash

The Pakistan Taliban may have sought to scare the military from launching an offensive against their base in South Waziristan. But the attacks, which killed 112 people in the past week, could harden the Army's resolve.

Alexandre Meneghini/AP
A police officer stands guard at a checkpoint in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Monday. The Pakistani Taliban say they have mobilized insurgent allies across the country for a new wave of attacks aimed at avenging the death of their leader in a U.S. airstrike.

Facing a looming assault from the military, the Al Qaeda-linked Pakistani Taliban launched a spree of brazen attacks and a media blitz over the past week that appeared to say "bring it on."

Today, the military responded by bombing the Taliban's hub in South Waziristan as government forces prepare for a ground offensive there.

The Taliban have recently killed at least 112 people – including United Nations workers, peacekeeper recruits in the restive Swat Valley, and a general and two colonels in the Pakistani Army. They also infiltrated Army headquarters over the weekend. But experts on the conflict sense an underlying insecurity behind their tactics.

"For [the militants], it's essentially a battle for their survival. If they lose the sanctuary in South Waziristan, that's pretty much the end of the game for them," says Rifaat Hussain, a security expert at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "For them, offense is a defensive strategy."

Taliban goes on offensive

The idea would be to sow fear in minds of advancing troops and civilians, whom both sides will try to keep from helping the other. And the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, needed to burnish that fearsome image following a half year of setbacks for the group.

The TTP entered the spring looking like a David running circles around the Pakistani military Goliath. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton openly worried about the security of Pakistan's nuclear weapons, and some in Washington worried the country could collapse within six months.

Instead, the military chased the Taliban from Swat and won popular support, while the US killed TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud with a missile.

The Taliban's 22-hour shootout and hostage drama inside the heavily guarded Army headquarters this weekend succeeded in reviving some of Washington's earlier anxieties. But Ms. Clinton again set the tone, this time reflecting the diminished concern over the TTP.

"We have confidence in the Pakistani government and military's control over nuclear weapons," she said, adding that while militants were "increasingly threatening the authority of the state, we see no evidence that they are going to take over the state."

To be sure, this past week wasn't purely a psychological warfare campaign – the attacks did showcase some of the TTP's real, not just mythic, strengths.

The bombing Monday in Swat highlighted that the Taliban never fully "lost" that battle since their fighters remain in the hills, and government forces face a manpower shortage that requires rapidly training of tens of thousands of new recruits.

And the weekend attack on military headquarters, headed by an ethnic Punjabi militant, demonstrates that the new TTP leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, has the support of powerful jihadi groups in the country's heartland.

South Waziristan: Militant hub

According to Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, 80 percent of the militant attacks around the country are planned in South Waziristan, an autonomous tribal region along the border with Afghanistan.

Any military assault on Mr. Mehsud's mountain redoubt of South Waziristan will result in him calling for help to Taliban factions and other militant groups across the country, says Professor Hussain. "But I don't think support for these kinds of attacks in Punjab is that widespread," he adds.

The military's offensive is reportedly imminent – though the government has been saying it will pull the trigger for months now. During that time, the military has launched aerial bombardments, including the one Tuesday, designed to soften up militant positions.

Bombs may provoke – not deter – Army

The danger for Mehsud and his exercise in chest-puffing this week is that he may have simply strengthened the military's resolve.

"It's a miscalculation," says Gen. (ret.) Mahmood Shah, the former governor of the tribal belt. In trying to prevent a South Waziristan offensive, the TTP actions have proved "quite provocative."

Hussain agrees. "By launching these attacks on the very citadel and symbol of the Pakistani Army they have just crossed a red line, and there is no turning back as far as the Pakistani Army is concerned. I think they will be made to pay for it."

But other experts argue that the offensive has long been in cards and will not be rushed ahead or intensified because of the past week.

"I don't think any serious military is baited in that way," says Col. (ret.) Christopher Langton, a security analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "It will certainly annoy the military intensely and strengthen resolve, but the South Waziristan operation – which will inevitably occur at some point – isn't going to be accelerated just because of this."

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