As a fresh wave of terrorism violence spreads deeper into Pakistan, the Obama Administration is urging the country to act more decisively against militants who are based in the tribal areas and pose a threat to the region and beyond. For Washington, stabilizing Afghanistan depends on stanching the flow of militants from across the border. But while both political will and public opinion have discernibly shifted in recent days, there remain deep divisions and some resentment on the part of Pakistan over how to tackle the threat.
In the latest of a series of attacks, a remote-controlled bomb ripped through a music shop in Peshawar on Monday night. The explosion came just hours after Richard Holbrooke, the Obama Administration's special representative to the region, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived in Islamabad for their first visit since Washington announced its new strategy for the region. The morning before, 22 people were killed by a suicide bomber outside a mosque in Chakwal, a Punjabi town known for its links to the army. And on Saturday night, six paramilitary soldiers died after a suicide bomber blew himself up in the heart of Islamabad. (See pictures from Pakistan's dangerous frontier with Afghanistan.)
Blame for the violence has been cast on Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistan Taliban, whose associates claimed responsibility for last week's gun-and-grenade siege of a police training facility on the outskirts of Lahore and later vowed to carry out similar attacks in Pakistan "at least twice a week." Mehsud claimed that his new bombing campaign was retribution for CIA-operated drone attacks that have begun to shower on his fighters since the Obama Administration decided to broaden its range of targets. By focusing on Mehsud, who recently aligned his forces with al-Qaeda and Taliban elements mounting cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, Islamabad and Washington are in a rare moment of agreement. While the Pakistani political and military leadership has discreetly authorized U.S. drone attacks on its soil, the government ritually denounces them in public as a violation of its sovereignty in a bid to contain a hostile public.
But there are fundamental disagreements over Afghanistan. Washington believes that the Pakistani army, through its premier intelligence agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is continuing to back its traditional clients in the jihadist underworld. "There are challenges associated with the ISI's support, historically, for some groups, and I think it's important that that support ends," Mullen told reporters in Islamabad on Tuesday. In its military operations, Pakistan's army has taken on al-Qaeda and militants fighting inside Pakistan but has not targeted those militants including Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, believed to be hiding in Quetta who attack only U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The army says it has certain priorities and cannot risk opening up another front, given its stretched resources, by attacking those groups.
The role of the ISI and these militants will feature prominently in Holbrooke and Mullen's meeting with the Pakistani leadership, says Najam Sethi, a newspaper editor and a prominent supporter of Islamabad's alliance with Washington against militancy. Pakistani politicians and analysts believe that the military establishment, in its enduring efforts to counter Indian influence in the region, is reluctant to change course until there is a Pakistan-friendly regime installed in Kabul and a resolution to the Kashmir dispute. One politician described the fear of being squeezed from both borders as "being caught in a nutcracker." (Find out why Pakistan fears encirclement by India.)