Pakistan is enduring the most brutal spate of political violence since the Punjab-dominated Army was implicated in mass slaughter in 1971. Despite military victories in large swathes of the tribal areas that are home to the Taliban, Pakistan’s major cities have been rocked by an escalating series of violent events that, according to one estimate, have claimed 544 lives in a little under three months.
Where once the bombings were primarily concentrated in or near the tribal areas, such as the cities of Peshawar and Dera Ismail Khan, these recent bomb blasts and shootings have hit several of the largest cities in the country.
The bombings of the two biggest cities of the Punjab, the most populous and influential of Pakistan’s provinces — Lahore in May and Multan earlier this month — are a sign of this shift. The carnage in Multan was followed by an attack on a mosque in a heavily fortified part of Rawalpindi where many Army personnel traditionally gather for Friday prayers. This last attack left 40 dead, including a major-general and 16 children of senior military officers.
This was the second major attack on Rawalpindi, the city which houses the headquarters of Pakistan’s Army, in as many months. In October, militants attempted to breach Army headquarters, leading to a 22-hour siege and hostage crisis that badly humiliated the country’s senior generals.
The Taliban hail from the remote and poorly developed tribal areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, and not from the big cities. This makes claims that they are responsible for these recent bombings all the more destabilising for Pakistan — but it also has many here querying whether the Taliban actually is responsible for the well coordinated attacks.
Pakistan’s media, religious groups and government authorities rarely use the term "Taliban" when discussing the current violence. That is because in Pakistan the Taliban are still associated with the anti-US resistance in neighbouring Afghanistan. There is also a widespread perception that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that existed before the US-led invasion of 2001 was, although perhaps theologically primitive, an honest political broker that provided the troubled central Asian nation with an unprecedented level of stability and promoted the virtues of Islam.
For observers in the West this may sound absurd. But a little over two decades ago, Islamist militants waging what they considered a holy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan were called "freedom fighters" by then US President Ronald Reagan, (not to mention by Rambo).
For many in Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban inherited the mantle of freedom fighters from the conflict in the 1980s. While the Pakistan security establishment has retained informal links with Afghan Taliban commanders and their allies after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, for their part, the Afghan Taliban has largely avoided the anti-Pakistan insurgency.
Noting this distinction, retired civil and military officials contacted by newmatilda.com say they are sceptical about Taliban involvement in the bombings inside Pakistan. They blame foreign governments, particularly India, the United States and Israel for the current violence.