In Pakistan, downturn in major Taliban attacks brings cautious optimism

Pakistan's major cities have seen no large Taliban attacks since May, and civilian casualties are at a four-year low. Some credit better policing and coordination with intelligence agencies.

B.K. Bangash/AP
Pakistani police defused ammunition and suicide vests they recovered from a house on Oct. 8 in Islamabad, after they said they foiled a terror plot involving a series of attacks on high-profile targets.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

From the assassination of a liberal governor who stood up to the country's oppressive blasphemy laws in January to the US-led raid that killed Osama bin Laden, 2011 has been another year dominated by bad news for Pakistan.

Yet there are grounds for cautious optimism. A downturn in major terror attacks in the second half of the year and an overall decrease in civilian casualties at the hands of terrorists point to better policing and a gradual decline in the potency of militant groups, say officials and experts.

"Earlier, the Taliban would come with heavy weapons and attack and kill and slaughter at will. Those days are gone," says Fiaz Toru, former inspector general for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, credited with implementing a set of sweeping reforms to combat the threat posed by terrorists surrounding the province's main city of Peshawar.

In Pakistan's major cities, there have been no spectacular attacks since a daring siege carried out over two days by Taliban militants on a Karachi naval base in May in revenge for the bin Laden raid. Some 1,022 civilians have fallen victim to bomb attacks in 2011. Barring a late-year surge, this represents the lowest figure in four years, according to monitoring conducted by the New Delhi-based South Asia Terrorism Portal (last year the figure was 1,547, and it stood at 1,688 the year before).

A major part of that has to do with the removal of soft targets, says Rifaat Hussain, a security analyst at the Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad: "They [now] have genuine difficulty carrying out spectacular attacks."

In Peshawar, that has meant equipping police with heavy weaponry including mortars, grenade launchers, and heavy guns, as well as deploying some 2,000 police at more than 42 checkpoints on the outskirts of the city, says Mr. Toru, the former inspector general, and arming citizens to create a community police force that can act as authorities' eyes and ears.

"We've adopted a policy of proactive policing," explains Toru. Police are now routinely sent on operations in Peshawar's suburbs to root out suspected militants and materials used to construct bombs. The police's increasing responsibility has been accompanied by a doubling of salary and an increase in "martyrdom payout" (a kind of life-insurance payout that now stands at some $35,000). Perhaps, too, the Pakistani Taliban are aware of the cost of suicide attacks, adds Dr. Hussain: Where once the public sympathized with militants, groups that carry out suicide attacks are now ostracized.

Police forces across the country have also benefited from closer coordination with intelligence agencies with sophisticated equipment. In October, Islamabad police foiled an audacious attempt by 14 terrorists to carry out a series of coordinated attacks on high-profile targets including the Parliament House, Islamabad's diplomatic enclave, and the Inter-Services Intelligence headquarters, according to a report in English-daily The News. The plot, which had taken a year to plan, would have involved rocket strikes from launchers in the Margalla Hills, which lie to the north of Pakistan's capital city.

Peace process with the Pakistani Taliban?

Analysts say that the Army has squeezed the Pakistani Taliban, which is based out of the country's tribal areas on the Pakistani-Afghan border, into a defensive position following a series of major campaigns. While some militants are fought on the battlefield, other groups, especially terror groups with origins in sectarian violence such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), have entered into uneasy peace deals with the civilian government, says Hussain, the analyst.

"[Interior Minister] Rehman Malik said we have to 'mainstream' these groups. That's a diplomatic way of saying if you cease your attacks we will maintain the status quo," he says. An intelligence official based in Lahore who was not authorized to give his name acknowledged this position, adding that authorities must maintain a delicate balance to avoid a backlash from terrorists.

On Monday, a senior Pakistani Taliban spokesman told the Associated Press that the Pakistani Taliban had declared a cease-fire that had been in effect for the past month. "We are not attacking the Pakistan Army and government installations because of the peace process," said the commander. The government did not officially comment on the issue while the Army denied it had entered into such an agreement.

Still, the overall picture is far from rosy: While organized terror strikes may be down, sectarian attacks carried out largely by LeJ against Shiite targets have in fact surged, particularly in the western province of Balochistan.

"The cities seem to be ominously quiet right now, but sectarian violence [in other areas] continues. A key test will be Muharram – how peaceful or how violent that will be," says Hussain, referring to the first month of the Islamic calendar, in which fighting is prohibited.

And while Pakistan's security forces may have gotten better at dealing with terrorism, Toru says internal reforms can only go so far. "I am optimistic, but the key lies in Afghanistan.… You need a stable Afghanistan to have a stable Pakistan. But we've come through the most critical phase of our struggle."

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