Nation & World

Pakistani Taliban, with new leader, is back on the offensive

Eight months after Pakistan’s newly appointed prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, suspended counterterrorist operations against Taliban militants and sought negotiations to end their six-year insurgency, the country has discovered that the militants exploited that time and space to reverse major losses they’d suffered over the years at the hands of the 150,000 Pakistani soldiers arrayed against them.

The Taliban’s regeneration can be seen in a wave of murderous attacks on military and police targets in three major Pakistan cities and in the deterioration of security in Peshawar, the capital of the northern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders the country’s restive tribal areas.

Peshawar had become relatively secure of attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, known as the TTP after its Urdu-language acronym. Now, however, the city’s ring road is “completely under the control of the militants after dark,” said Sen. Haji Adeel of the Awami National Party, an ethnic Pashtun nationalist party based in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Among the reasons for the TTP’s re-infiltration of the city is the military’s withdrawal, since June, from the strategic Tirah Valley of the Khyber tribal agency, which is immediately adjacent to Peshawar.

The military’s taking of Tirah in a three-month assault last year was hailed as a major strategic victory because for the first time, the army had closed off a key conduit between the northern and southern tribal areas that the Pakistani Taliban previously had used to withdraw or reinforce forces in response to government counterterrorism operations.

It also severed the line of communications between the then TTP chief, Hakimullah Mehsud, and the 70-plus factions that make up the terrorist group.

The Taliban resurgence was also evidenced by back-to-back terrorist attacks in January on military and police personnel in Rawalpindi, the city adjacent to Islamabad that houses army headquarters. Those attacks demonstrated that the TTP had deployed terrorist squads at the army’s front door, evading the military’s powerful Inter Services Intelligence Directorate in the process.

The last time the Pakistani Taliban had mounted an operation in Rawalpindi was the October 2009 attack on the army’s headquarters in retaliation for an army operation in the South Waziristan tribal agency. That assault began a campaign that included an attack on a mosque during Friday services that killed 40 army officers and their relatives. After that, military personnel no longer appeared in public dressed in uniform.

The military’s response to the most recent Rawalpindi assault was also evidence of Taliban gains: it launched jet and helicopter gunship attacks on militant bases in Mir Ali in North Waziristan, where the TTP is based, and Tirah, which had been cleared once of Taliban. Obviously, it had been reoccupied during the eight months Sharif had sought, without success, to engage in peace talks.

The TTP also once again is active Balochistan province, fueling brutal attacks against the resident ethnic Hazara minority and Shiite Muslims, including pilgrims traveling to and from neighboring Iran.

More alarming, the Taliban also has launched a campaign in the southern port city of Karachi, a metropolis of more than 18 million people and the backbone of Pakistan’s weak economy.

Since the mid-1980s, the city has been a victim of wide-scale politically driven violence between Karachi’s majority community of mohajir, Urdu-speaking migrant Muslim families from India, and ethnic Pashtun and Baluch. But the Taliban has now moved into areas dominated by their fellow ethnic Pashtun, who typically live near the city’s 22 road access points.

During 2013, attacks surged in Karachi against prominent members of the Shiite and Sunni sectarian communities opposed to the Taliban’s stark interpretation of Islam. More than 2,500 people died there in 2013, making Karachi the most violent city in the world.

The deaths continued this month, with the Taliban murdering the city’s top counterterrorism police officer, Chaudhry Aslam, and targeting police officers and supporting paramilitary units in a campaign that has instantly doubled Karachi’s formidable daily death toll.

The resurgence of the Taliban coincided with the death Nov. 1 in a U.S. drone strike of Hakimullah Mehsud, the longtime TTP commander, and his replacement with Mullah Fazlullah, the man behind the Taliban’s 2008-09 occupation of the Swat district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa – the only time the militants invaded and held a settled area of Pakistan. The TTP fought off two army assaults before being bested in a third.

Sharif and his ministers had sulked at the U.S. elimination of Mehsud and then agreed to give Fazlullah time to consolidate his leadership over the Taliban’s many factions in hopes that when he sat down to talk, he would have greater political legitimacy.

Instead, Fazlullah used the time to plot the January campaign, earning the respect and admiration of his doubters. TTP insiders say the widespread nature of the Taliban’s attacks across the country have made Fazlullah “the most powerful, most dangerous leader” the insurgents have ever had.

Special correspondent Amjad Hadayat contributed to this report.