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A devastating suicide bombing rocked the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore on Wednesday, killing 30 people and wounding more than a 250. It was the deadliest attack in Pakistan this year, and underscored that a roiling Taliban insurgency is spreading deeper into the country.
Until recently, Pakistan's eastern border near India had largely remained outside the theater of conflict. Most attacks have taken place in the West, just a few miles from the Afghan border, in regions like Swat, Buner, and Waziristan, where Pakistan's military has been battling militants for the last several months.
But Wednesday's bombing was the third in as many months to strike in or around Lahore, a vibrant and tolerant city of 15 million. And it followed a pattern consistent with Taliban attacks, striking a symbol of the Pakistani state: buildings belonging to the city's emergency services police. It may also have been intended to target nearby buildings of the InterServices Intelligence, or ISI, the country's intelligence wing.
Pakistan's English newspaper Dawn on Wednesday emphasized the targeting of the ISI building, which was badly damaged.
At least four men with rifles stepped from the car and opened fire on the intelligence agency building, then set off a massive blast when security guards returned fire, officials said.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik suggested the attack could be retaliation for the government's military offensive to rout Taliban militants from the northwestern Swat Valley.
The Associated Press said the injured included bystanders and police, and added that ISI agents were among the dead.
For the last month, Pakistan's military has waged a concerted campaign to flush out militants in Swat valley and surrounding districts. The assault is seen as a major test of Pakistan's ability to regain control of – and keep – territory taken by extremists, The Christian Science Monitor reported recently.
And so far, the military claims to have made impressive gains: killing more than 1,000 militants in the assault, recapturing most of Buner, a district 60 miles from the Pakistani capital, as well as the main cities of Swat, according to the Daily Times, a Lahore-based English newspaper.
Security forces said on Tuesday they had made "considerable progress" in securing Mingora, [the main city of Swat] as fierce fighting continued to wrest back control of Kabal from the Taliban.
"More than half of Mingora is under the army's control. We have plugged all escape routes for militants," military spokesman Major General Athar Abbas told a press conference, saying pockets of "hardcore militants" remained.
But the army's figures are difficult to verify since journalists are barred from the conflict zone. And as Wednesday's attack highlighted, taking on the Taliban in one area of the country seems only to be spreading the insurgency to others. The New York Times points out that Lahore has become a target for attacks in recent months.
In March, eight people were killed in the city in a commando-style attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team…
Then, later in March, militants hit several hundred police cadets caught off guard during a morning drill at their academy in a village near Lahore....
The [latest] attack reinforced an assessment by Pakistani and American authorities that Taliban insurgents were teaming up with local militant groups to make inroads in Punjab, which is home to more than half of Pakistanis. The alliance poses a serious risk to the stability of the country, those authorities said.
How Pakistan can best stem the tide of the insurgency is a question that American, NATO, and Pakistani leaders are scrambling to answer. The Boston Globe reports that American intelligence officials aren't very clear who the Taliban are.
Top military and intelligence officials say they know far too little about the disparate groups they are fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan and believe many fighters have been incorrectly labeled as the Taliban, lumping those who pose the greatest threat with others who may be willing to share power with the Afghan and Pakistani governments.
But as US intelligence efforts were trained on Iraq, there was no comparable attempt to map out the different groups facing off against American and allied forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to multiple US government officials and analysts. A recent Obama administration review of US policy found American understanding of the nature of those adversaries to be seriously lacking.