U.S. Consulate Attack: A Message from the Taliban

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Faisal Mahmood / Reuters

Security forces stand at the site of the Pakistani Taliban attack outside the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, Pakistan, on April 5, 2010

The Pakistani Taliban's audacious, coordinated assault on the U.S. consulate in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Monday suggests that intense operations by the Pakistani military against them have done little to diminish their capacity to retaliate or attack. Shortly after 1 p.m. on Monday, successive car bombs rocked the heavily secured zone near the consulate, spewing thick plumes of grayish smoke over the area, which also houses important Pakistani military personnel. Then, at least six heavily armed assailants dressed in military fatigues and traveling in two vehicles attacked Pakistani police roadblocks with rockets, grenades and weapons fire and attempted to storm the consulate.

The attack — which left at least seven people dead, including four militants but no Americans — marked a departure from the Taliban's more frequent prey, Pakistani military and intelligence officials and facilities. "Americans are our enemies. We carried out the attack on their consulate in Peshawar. We plan more such attacks," Reuters quoted Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq as saying.

Although the militants failed to breach the compound's security, the multipronged assault was the most serious strike against an American diplomatic mission in the country since 1979, when the U.S. embassy in the capital of Islamabad was overrun and torched by university students in response to the siege of Mecca by Saudi religious insurgents. Other attacks have followed. In Peshawar in 2008, a U.S. diplomat narrowly escaped a Taliban ambush as she drove to work. Two years earlier, an American diplomat's car was rammed by an explosives-laden vehicle in Karachi, killing him and several other people.

There had been recent warnings that the Taliban would resume their campaign of terrorism against sensitive targets. On March 31, a militant identified as Qari Hussein — considered the head of the Taliban's squad of suicide bombers — told the English-language daily Dawn that the Taliban would "refresh memories of the attack on the Khost base" in Afghanistan, which left seven CIA agents dead.

According to several Pakistani security and defense analysts, one factor that may have instigated Monday's attack was the U.S.-led coalition forces' imminent plan to push into the Afghan Taliban's stronghold of Kandahar. The message: If the Americans and NATO create problems for the Taliban in Afghanistan, then Taliban militants have the option to target American sites anywhere. And in that case, "Peshawar is the easiest target," says Dr. Hasan Askari Rizvi, a defense analyst and professor emeritus of political science at the University of Punjab in Lahore.

As the gateway to Pakistan's restive tribal belt, Peshawar is "within easy reach" of the Taliban militants who are based in the country's lawless zone, says Dr. Riffat Hussein, chairman of the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University. "This is a payback attack for what the Pakistan army has tried to do to them in the tribal areas, and the Americans as well, in addition to the anticipated Kandahar attack." Cross-border infiltration — and coordination — between the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban remains a key obstacle. Rizvi says the threat posed by the linkage will take “several years of earnest effort” by coalition and Pakistani forces to contain.

In recent months, the U.S. military has staged increasingly frequent drone attacks against militants in the tribal area of North Waziristan, while the Pakistani military has sought to crush the Taliban in several fierce offensives in South Waziristan and Orakzai. But the militants have proved resilient, and their ability to stage massive attacks appears intact. The combined offensives against them meant the Taliban "simply spread out wherever they could to other areas," says Imtiaz Gul, executive director of the Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad. "I was under no illusion that this phenomenon is gone, that they would not be able to bounce back."

Rizvi blamed complacency on the part of some members of the security forces for Monday's sophisticated attack, especially since there hadn't been a major Taliban attack in Peshawar this year. "With the passage of time, security people on roads, especially those checking the roads, become less attentive," he says. Indeed, several weeks ago, Interior Minister Rehman Malik suspended a police chief in Islamabad for lax security after officers manning a checkpoint failed to stop and search the minister's vehicle.

But at its most fundamental level, the continued Taliban threat represents an intelligence failure, not merely sloppy checkpoint security. Gul says the intelligence capacity of Pakistan's state institutions has yet to match the level of threat that the country faces. "But it's very difficult when you're dealing with people whose only target is [to wreak] destruction," he says. "However you take out the Taliban leaders or their activists and however you dislodge them from their strongholds ... you can't eliminate them altogether."