Pakistan

SCENARIOS-What does new militant strategy mean for Pakistan?

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By Michael Georgy

ISLAMABAD, Jan 2 - A suicide bomber blew himself up in an SUV at a volleyball game in northwest Pakistan on Friday, killing at least 89 people in a village that opposes al Qaeda-linked Taliban insurgents. [ID:nSGE60100M]

The New Year's day attack raised new doubts over the pro-American government's efforts to contain Taliban militants.

Here are some possible scenarios as President Asif Ali Zardari faces mounting pressure from militants who appear to have adopted a new strategy of bombing large crowds in their bid to destabilise the country.

CAN THE NEW MILITANT STRATEGY WORK?

Big attacks against civilians would anger Pakistanis, most of whom reject the Taliban's ideology and violent methods. That was evident on Monday after a suicide bomber blew himself up among thousands of Shi'ite Muslims at a religious festival.

The attack in the commercial capital Karachi killed 43 people, and triggered riots which destroyed hundreds of buildings. A call for a strike to protest violence was observed by the public, a sign that the Taliban strategy could backfire.

Much will depend on the mood of Pakistanis. It's a complex issue. For instance, many were enraged last year after a video of Taliban militants flogging a young woman was circulated.

At the same time Zardari's close ties with Washington have deeply disappointed Pakistanis. U.S. drone missile attacks on militants on Pakistani soil, as well as a conditional U.S. aid package, have infuriated people who see it as a humiliating violation of sovereignty.

WHERE DOES THE MILITARY STAND?

Pakistan's military -- which has ruled the country for more than half of its 62-year history -- calls the shots, not Zardari's civilian government. Generals have usually been a unifying force during crises, although military coups have hurt the country's democratic credentials.

Pakistanis may identify more closely with the military than with Zardari because the army has taken a stand against U.S. attempts to influence decision-making. Military leaders have made it clear that Washington will not dictate security policy.

Despite the army's strength, the Taliban has demonstrated Pakistan military establishment is not invincible. In a coordinated attack, suicide bombers and gunmen climbed over a wall in December and attacked a mosque near army headquarters, killing at least 40 people.

An army offensive may not produce immediate results. A major crackdown on the militant stronghold of South Waziristan was followed by bombings which killed hundreds of people across the country.

CAN MILITARY SUCCESS END THE MILITANT THREAT?

No. The Taliban exploit poverty by promising impressionable young men glorious holy war and have succeeded in recruiting children as young as 14 to become suicide bombers, police say.

Unless the government can ease poverty and improve basic services, the Taliban will have continued opportunities to recruit.

WILL THE ECONOMY SUFFER?

At least in practical terms. Attacks on civilians or commercial centres will rattle Pakistanis, who are more likely to stay home than spend money. Attacking major cities would discourage investment.

But some analysts say bombing crowds in markets, for instance, may indicate that the militants are being cornered and are unable to attack other high-profile targets.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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