Pakistan’s Metastasizing Insurgency
Yesterday’s attack in Multan may not seem significant to outsiders looking at the steady drumbeat of bombings that have rocked Pakistan. It seems like another insurgent attack on a government installation with a double-digit body count. And there’s a numbing familiarity to the attack by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which used their now familiar methods of a coordinated assault and suicide bomb. (In this case, a truck bomb.) The target was the Inter-Services Intelligence building in Multan, a town of 1.4 million people in central Punjab.
But it was the location that gives me pause. In five days, we’ve had five bombings in Pakistan, stretching from Peshawar to Lahore and now further south to Multan. More than 100 people have been killed. This indicates the Taliban insurgency has not only survived the Pak Army’s assault on South Waziristan, but has expanded its operations to the Punjab heartland again after being hobbled by Operation Path to Salvation, launched in October.
Yesterday’s attack was the third on an ISI facility in six months, and it’s intended to show that the frontline defense of the state against internal threats can be hit, too. Twelve people died in Multan yesterday, and 47 were injured. But it’s also the first attack in Multan and the furthest south the Taliban have ever managed to strike to date. Previously, they’ve limited their attacks to the NWFP (Peshawar) and the northern part of Punjab (Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Lahore.) Attacking Multan shows the expanding reach of the insurgency.
This means that the Pakistani Taliban—after a November lull—can now project power deep into the country’s heartland. Their command and control capabilities have not been diminished. Given that the Pak Army claims about 75o militants killed in South Waziristan, out of an estimated 10,000, there is now every indication that the Pakistan Taliban did indeed relocate the bulk of its fighting resources and leadership out of the conflict zone months before the army ever went in. And it does seem to indicate that the alliance between Pashtun and Punjabi militant groups is alive and well.
So what does all this mean for the future? Well, Multan is a symbolic hit, being the home of Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. It’s also the last major town heading south before you hit Sindh. While there’s yet to be a militant attack in Karachi, Pakistan’s financial capital and largest city, that doesn’t mean there will never be one.
So, the Multan attack was a signal that the Taliban can hit where they want, and that Karachi is within their sights. There is a major Pashtun population in Karachi, too, providing a population that might be sympathetic to the largely Pashtun insurgency’s aims of autonomy for their tribal homelands. If the TTP were able to spark major ethnic clashes between Pashtuns and the Muhajirs in Karachi, the resources of the state could be overwhelmed. Perhaps that’s the idea: To stretch out the Pakistani Army’s resources all over NWFP, FATA, Punjab and even Sindh in an incoherent counter-insurgency strategy to create a state of anarchy so that they can operate freely. Washington has even suggested the TTP and its al Qaeda allies want to spark a war between India and Pakistan.
One thing’s clear: As the United States pours troops into Afghanistan, more militants from there likely will wind up on this side of the Durrand Line, leading to an increase in violence in Pakistan. Combined with a political, financial and energy crisis, Pakistan is in for a bumpy winter.