Taliban bomb Peshawar in response to Pakistan offensive
The Pakistan offensive against the Taliban is making some progress, but the militants have struck back with a series of suicide attacks in the city of Peshawar. Is this the last gasp of encircled Taliban militants – or a continuing counterattack?
Haji Muhammad was carrying a box of chickens to his stall Monday when he saw the pickup truck racing down a Peshawar street. A moment later the truck exploded and he found himself lying on the floor, his right-leg crushed by the tumbling wall of the mosque next door.
"I don't know how I will be able to look after my wife and three children now," says the shop-keeper, now at the Lady Reading Hospital where many victims of suicide attacks in this northwestern Pakistani city have been taken in recent months.
The car bomb that injured Mr. Mohammed on Monday was aimed at a police station in the Peshawar suburb of Badhaber. The bomb killed four and injured 31 and was the fifth Taliban attack in the city in the last week.
Peshawar, a city of 2.5 million and the capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province is home to most of the country's ethnic Pashtun population. Its proximity to the frontline of Pakistan's battle with the Taliban leadership in South Waziristan make it an easier target for terrorists than the capital Islamabad or the eastern city of Lahore, says Rahimullah Yusufzai, the Peshawar bureau chief of the News, an English-language daily.
While the death toll Monday was mercifully low by recent standards, some observers fear that Taliban fighters may launch another "spectacular" attack soon. "As the Army makes its way through Waziristan, the militants may try to show they still have the ability to lash out," says Mr Yusufzai.
Mehmood Shah, a former security chief for Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), argues that violence in Peshawar is peaking and predicts that the Taliban will soon exhaust their supply of suicide-bombers and explosives. "They seem to be acting out of desperation. Once their headquarters is taken it will be increasingly difficult for them to mount these kind of attacks," he says.
"Earlier they could launch audacious strikes in Islamabad and Lahore. Now the frontline has fallen to Peshawar. As the battle goes on it may fall further back to Tank and Bannu, the towns around South Waziristan," says Yusufzai.
But at the city's main Peepal Mandi bazaar, the site of the Oct. 28 Taliban attacks that killed more than 100 people, there is also evidence of anger at the Pakistani Army – or at least at some of its allies.
"Handing the Pearl Continental to Blackwater is a grave injustice," says a banner in Pashtun.
The Pearl Continental is a luxury hotel that the US reportedly plans to purchase for use as the consulate in Peshawar. Blackwater, which has renamed itself Xe, is an American security contractor that has been accused of killing dozens of civilians in Iraq and now provides security for a US-backed aid project in the area. The company's operatives are often viewed by Pakistanis as akin to CIA agents and local conspiracy theories sometimes assert that the US with the help of Blackwater, rather than the Taliban, are responsible for the suicide attacks.
Says tailor Muhammad Nadeem: "We don't know who is carrying out these attacks. Some say it's the Taliban. Some say it's the government or the Americans. We just want to see peace."
Asked whether he would prefer to be ruled by the Taliban, Nadeem is evasive: "The Taliban aren't necessarily bad for calling for sharia (Islamic law). These days everyone seems to be accusing each other so it's hard to say who is right."
Similar views are repeated by others in the bazaar as well as patients and their relatives at the hospital. Dr. Afridi at the Lady Reading Hospital is also adamant that "foreign agencies" including those from India are involved in the attacks.
According to Faizullah Jan, a lecturer at the department of journalism and mass communication at the University of Peshawar, such conspiracy theories are fed by Pakistan's mainstream media and the proliferation of underground jihadi media outlets. "In such an environment anything which is seemingly obvious is not real, and anything which is hidden is deemed to be real," he says.
The current-spate of attacks have stretched the city's rescue infrastructure beyond its limits and authorities are struggling to cope with the influx of casualties.
"We are not fully equipped to respond to such situations. We can hire heavy cranes, heavy excavators, but we lack experts who can operate them," Sahibzada Anees, the city's top administrator said.
At night most people opt to stay at home and the streets remain largely clear. "If you slow down to ask directions people get very nervous," remarks Mir Zaman, a cab-driver.
"The morale of the people is not high. They are brave people, a peace-loving people. They want to see an end to these activities," adds Mr Anees.