Behind Sunday night’s attack on Karachi lies a complex web of local, regional and global dynamics. These link Washington with Waziristan, Karachi with Kabul – and none look likely to encourage any optimism that this recent attack will be the last.
Responsibility for the attack has been claimed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a fractious coalition of militant groups based in the restive zones along Pakistan’s frontier with Afghanistan. The TTP emerged seven years ago as the sharpest of the new generation of jihadist outfits that – unlike most previous militant groups in the world’s second-most populous Muslim-majority nation – rejected deals with the local security establishment and took as its primary enemy the Pakistani state itself.
There was a further attack on Tuesday following Sunday night’s assault, which left 36 people dead and destroyed buildings.
Last month the fracture-prone TTP suffered its biggest schism yet, after a prominent and more moderate faction left an organisation it said had “strayed from the true path”. Intelligence analysts know that such splits often lead swiftly to spectacular operations designed to reassert the authority and credentials of a group’s leadership through a new level of audacity or brutality.
That theory seems proved by a statement after the Karachi attack, in which Shahidullah Shahid, a TTP spokesperson, said: “This was just an example of what we are capable of and there is more to come. The government should be ready for even worse attacks.”
One critical issue that split the TTP was faltering peace talks between the movement and the Pakistan government, led since May last year by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The Pakistani government may see a silver lining in this assault, even if it exposes its continuing inability to keep the country’s citizens and key transport infrastructure safe. Sharif is in need of public support to allow the military to launch what is likely to be a bloody and politically controversial thrust into the TTP strongholds in Waziristan. The Karachi attack, reinforced by the current de facto suspension of strikes by US drones in Pakistan, may provide it.
But there is a regional dynamic at play too. Pakistan, India and Afghanistan each accuse each other of using proxy forces to foment instability. The past three weeks have seen violent attacks across a huge area. Kabul alleges that Pakistani militants were behind both attacks.
The leader of the TTP is based in Afghanistan and has reportedly received some support from Kabul. Many in Pakistan believe Delhi is behind the TTP’s campaign of violence – and much else. There have been shoot-outs in Indian-held parts of the disputed former princedom of Kashmir. The Indians blame Islamabad for these, and the recent kidnapping of an Indian missionary in Afghanistan.
This swamp of ingrained suspicions is one in which terrorists inevitably thrive. A physical area of uncertain authority is essential. But a zone where facts are malleable, where morals are flexible and where the only principle is “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” is very useful too.
In the middle, geographically, and to some extent ideologically, is the Afghan Taliban, the original movement that predates its Pakistani counterpart by nearly 15 years. It appears that Afghan Taliban leaders tried to patch up the split in the TTP, acting as intermediaries trusted by both parties. They failed.
At the same time, they were also talking to the United States, reinforcing their role as essential brokers in the region. Last week Bowe Bergdahl, a US soldier held by the Afghan Taliban or an allied group for five years, was freed in a controversial deal in return for five senior Taliban officials held by the US.
For many years after 2001 such contacts were unthinkable. Then the reality of war in Afghanistan led to a new pragmatism. Washington’s interest in the region is now waning and most US troops will soon be gone. But the various extremist factions will remain, as will the mutual antagonism of local players, the mutual suspicion of their respective populations, and, unfortunately, the strong likelihood of more spectacular attacks. – © Guardian News & Media 2014