The Pakistan government is ironing out a peace deal with the Pakistani Taliban. A deadly wave of violence is sweeping the country, but it may not be at the hands of the usual suspects.
KARACHI, Pakistan —- A deadly bombing inside a vegetable market on the fringes of Islamabad killed 25 people and injured as many as 100 others on Wednesday. It came at a time when the Pakistan government is trying to iron out a peace deal with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or Pakistani Taliban, and working to extend the 40-day cease-fire, which recently expired.
The vegetable market bombing also came one day after 16 people died when a 20 kilogram bomb rocked a passenger train at Sibi station in Balochistan province.
Munawwar Azeem, an Islamabad-based journalist who works for English-language daily Dawn, was a witness to the Wednesday attack.
“There was complete chaos. I saw body parts strewn all over the place and people had begun putting the injured in any vehicle they could get their hands on, even on hand-pulled carts, and shifting them to hospitals,” he told MintPress News.
Police said about 5 kilograms of explosives were hidden in a guava crate. It was the deadliest attack in Islamabad after the one on the Marriott Hotel in 2008, which left over 50 dead and as many as 260 injured.
On any given morning, Azeem said, the vegetable market is pulsating with anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 people, usually laborers and vendors. “It is open from all sides and it is virtually impossible to check the comings and goings.”
Furthermore, the detectors placed at the entrance were not working on the day of the bombing.
In a statement, the Pakistani Taliban denied any involvement in either of the attacks, saying, “The killing of innocent people in attacks on public places is regrettable and prohibited by Islam.”
Many find the group’s sudden U-turn in characterizing civilian deaths as un-Islamic a paradox. For years, the Pakistani Taliban, which does not tolerate dissent, has never shown remorse and has spared no one. They have ruthlessly killed and maimed women, children, doctors, peacemakers, politicians, journalists and security forces, and they have had no qualms about attacking funerals, mosques, shrines, hospitals and public spaces.
“It took over 50,000 deaths of innocent people for them to realize this?” retorted an infuriated Salman Ahmed, a banker in the southern port city of Karachi.
“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry – ‘TTP Spox says attacks on public places and casualties deplorable, such acts are illegal and “haram,”’” Bilawal Zardari Bhutto, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, tweeted.
For now, the government has accepted the Pakistani Taliban’s move to distance itself from the recent attacks. Minister of Information and Broadcasting Pervez Rasheed has even deemed it a good omen, noting that terrorists are growing increasingly isolated without the group’s support.
Who could be behind these heinous attacks if not the Pakistani Taliban?
“It could be anyone, including some secret agency within and outside” as this kind of an attack “does not require expertise,” senior journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai told MintPress. Yusufzai was part of the initial four-member committee formed for negotiations with the Pakistani Taliban.
This was echoed by Masood Sharif Khattak, former director general of Pakistan’s Intelligence Bureau. “It’s too early to point a finger on anyone. Our nation stands divided today over whether to have peace talks with the Taliban or not. There are groups on either side who may want to derail it.”
Since 9/11, he continued, the country has been vulnerable to all kinds of activities of external intelligence agencies. “You cannot rule out their nefarious schemes, either.”
At the same time, Yusufzai, who specializes in covering militancy and is an expert on Afghanistan, said the attacks could be from a faction of the Pakistani Taliban that is not in favor of these talks.
“It is quite possible the hardliners among the TTP who do not want the peace negotiations to continue are jeopardizing the dialogue,” said Yusufzai.
For example, on March 3, 11 people, including an additional sessions judge, were killed and over 30 were wounded in a gun, grenade and suicide attack at the district courts premises in Islamabad. The Pakistani Taliban also denied involvement in this attack. Ahrarul Hind, a splinter group that broke away from the main Pakistani Taliban after the group engaged in talks with the Pakistan government, has claimed responsibility for the attack.
There are no confirmed figures showing how many groups comprise the Pakistani Taliban, and despite the ideological divide, many militant groups also align themselves with the group.
Recently, divisions and cracks within the Pakistani Taliban have become increasingly visible. Due to infighting between two factions under the group’s umbrella, over 50 people have reportedly been killed in clashes since Sunday in the tribal belt of Pakistan, North Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan.
These differences emerged over the Pakistani Taliban’s leadership after the death of Hakimullah Mehsud last November.
Nevertheless, Yusufzai supports the peace process wholeheartedly. “Talking helps to know the intensity of the feeling of the other side; you understand their narrative and interacting can help change their mindset. It’s better than operating in a vacuum.”
He finds it hard to believe the market attack could have been carried out by mainstream Pakistani Taliban, though. As a gesture of goodwill, the Pakistani state has released 19 Taliban members, and 13 more are to be released soon.
“There is no reason for them when, right now, they have a vested interest for the talks continue so that they can get their people released,” he said.
Should the Pakistani Taliban rein in errant factions?
“Once they are convinced the negotiations are moving forward, that the army and the government are on the same page, they may ask the splinter groups to hold their guns,” said Yusufzai. “They do have the capacity to do that.”
For now, he said, they may not want to fight their own allies.
With rifts among the ranks, he said, many members may think it could well be the doing of the Pakistan government and its army — and this belief could have spurred the attacks.
For Pakistan, this could mean more such attacks in the future.
“The state needs to be prepared all the time, and pre-empt these attacks using technology and its manpower,” said Yusufzai.
Khattak said “counter intelligence” is the only way to prevent such attacks.
“For far too long, there was a void in governance,” he said, but he sees a glimmer of hope in the dialogue. “The TTP statement of condemnation should be seen dispassionately and the announcement of ceasefire coming from them is an achievement, nonetheless.”