WASHINGTON — A car bomb in Pakistan that killed dozens of people in a crowded marketplace comes as American officials grow increasingly confident that the Pakistani army is making progress against Islamic extremists in the country’s tribal region.
Tuesday, a car bomb exploded in the Peepal Mandi market in Peshawar, killing as many as 91 people, according to media reports. The bombing, suspected of being carried out by elements of the Pakistani Taliban, was one of the worst there in the last two years. But such attacks may heighten the resolve of the Pakistani government to fight extremism within its borders – something the American government has been urging the Pakistanis to do for years. Now, that campaign appears to be taking form.
The Pakistan Army is nearly two weeks into an offensive in the mountainous terrain of South Waziristan. Its target is Tehrik-e-Taliban.
Pakistan, an umbrella group of several factions that have sought to destabilize Pakistan in recent years. The Pakistani Taliban are largely separate from the Afghan Taliban that use Pakistan as a command-and-control hub to attack US forces in Afghanistan.
The Pakistan Army has deployed some seven brigades – or about 18,000 soldiers – to attempt to choke militant operations there. Another seven brigades have formed a large blockade around the region to secure operations inside.
The terrain is extremely challenging, making it difficult for the army to clear and secure the roads throughout the area – necessary before units can really begin performing strikes against militants, according to an American defense official, who asked for anonymity because was not authorized to speak on the record.
The high terrain means that many of the mountainous areas that tower over the roads must also be secured to make the passageways safe. The impending cold weather will make it difficult to proceed, also slowing efforts. Officials note a rise in the number of roadside bombs used by militants, but the lack of bomb-resistant vehicles – like the ones so important to American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan – and too few helicopters also makes securing the terrain slow-going.
“You don’t do it quickly,” says the defense official.
Despite the problems, American officials are pleased so far with what they see.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Pakistan Wednesday and stood with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to renew the American commitment to the Pakistani fight.
“I want you to know that this fight is not Pakistan’s alone,” she said at a news conference.
The Obama administration is trying to establish a long-term relationship with Pakistan instead of the on-again, off-again one that has existed for years. Many Pakistanis say the US uses them only when it’s convenient – in the wake of 9/11, for example – only to turn on them when Pakistan is no longer central to US foreign policy.
As the US debates its war strategy for Afghanistan, many officials believe the center of gravity is not Afghanistan but Pakistan. That is leading to military and nonmilitary engagement – such as the large aid package passed by Congress recently.
There are signs that the South Waziristan offensive is part of a change in thinking inside Pakistan about the insurgency within its borders, officials say.
The Pakistan Army used to refer to militants as “miscreants,” the defense official notes. Now, they’re called “terrorists.”
“This is an indication that they’re taking the threat more seriously,” the official says.