Groups of Taliban fighters are spilling out of the tribal belt in northwestern Pakistan into the region’s largest city, Peshawar, where they are increasingly showing their presence through a campaign of intimidation and violence, according to residents, the police and city officials.
While Taliban violence has declined across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa this year, officials say, rates have increased in Peshawar, where militants have stepped up attacks aimed at the police, extortion demands, sectarian killings and kidnappings.
For all that, the militants do not pose an immediate threat to the overall control of the city, and the police say they have foiled many potential attacks. But the increased Taliban presence does signal a further advance for the militants, who have also become a more muscular presence this year in Karachi, the country’s most populous city.
Their strength has also bolstered a broader wave of sectarian violence in the northwest, the New York Times reported. On Saturday, the toll from a double bomb attack conducted on Friday against minority Shiites in Parachinar climbed to 57 dead and at least 167 wounded, the authorities said.
Militants have attacked inside Peshawar, a city of an estimated four million people, once a day, on average, for the past five months, according to provincial government statistics. That accounts for about half of the militant episodes across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“It’s like Ricky Ponting playing cricket,” said a senior security official in Peshawar, referring to a former Australian cricketer known for his prolific scoring ability, and speaking on the customary condition of anonymity.
The violence is partly a product of military success. The Pakistani Army has been battling Taliban militants in the mountains of the adjoining Khyber tribal agency in recent months. A smaller security operation is under way in Darra Adamkhel.
The fiercest fighting is taking place in the Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency, along the Afghan border, where the military is arrayed against Mangal Bagh.
Helicopter gunships and artillery attacked militant hide-outs in Khyber as part of an intense, weeklong military assault that ended on Thursday. Tribal authorities in Khyber said they found the bodies of 20 militants in one village alone.
But the back draft of those battles is being felt in the suburbs of Peshawar, where nervous residents have reported sightings of militants who travel around on motorcycles, frequent restaurants late at night and preach in local mosques.
Abdul Haleem, a building contractor, said he received a surprise lecture on violence during morning prayers at his local mosque recently. “A man stood up and, without the permission of the imam, started preaching about the importance of jihad and its rewards in the hereafter,” Haleem said during an interview at his house in Hayatabad, the city’s wealthiest suburb.
“Later we found out that he was a militant commander from Khyber,” he said.
Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf favours talks with the Taliban over fighting, and his officials frequently frame militant violence as a reaction to American drone strikes in the tribal belt.
“What we need is a pat on the back, not daily derision,” one senior official said. “If Khan says this is not our war, then what does he think we are doing here sacrificing our lives?”
Murad Saeed, a member of Parliament from Imran Khan’s party, rejected accusations that his party was soft on militancy. “We only say that the use of force has been futile against militancy, and now we should give a chance to a political solution,” Saeed said in a telephone interview.
Some of the violence in Peshawar this year has targeted members of the Shia minority, and doctors in particular. In January, Dr Shah Nawaz Ali, an eye specialist at LadyReadingHospital, was shot dead outside his clinic, and another doctor in Peshawar, Dr Riaz Hussain Shah, a gastroenterologist, was killed.
Wealthy businessmen have faced extortion demands. The owner of a truck transport company living in Hayatabad said a militant demand for about $100,000 came to him in the form of a letter thrown at his doorstep. The next day a Taliban commander phoned him. “He warned me not to inform the police,” said the businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for safety reasons. “I have no option but to meet their demand.”
The provincial police chief, Ihsan Ghani, acknowledged that the situation was grave, but he insisted that it was under control. “There is a clear and present danger,” Ghani said in an interview. But, he added, police intelligence had quietly disrupted several terrorist plots, and the authorities had arrested many militants.
The turmoil comes against the backdrop of a broader political stasis in Pakistan. The prospect of peace talks with the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan has evoked mixed reactions among Pakistani politicians. Some, like Imran Khan, view such talks as a necessary first step out of a violent regional quagmire, a move that would at once bring peace to Afghanistan and remove the justification that spurs Pakistan’s militants.
But others view the notion of talks with apprehension, fearing that they would only give the Taliban time to conquer ground that would eventually have to be won back through painful military operations, as the army did in the SwatValley in 2009.
Some Pakistani officials worry that the American withdrawal in Afghanistan in 2014 will embolden Pakistan’s Taliban. A recent strategic assessment by the province’s Home and Tribal Affairs Department, a copy of which has been obtained by The New York Times, warns that it is a “fallacy” to assume that the American departure from Afghanistan will end violence in Pakistan. Instead, the document warns, Pakistan’s Taliban could use the perceived victory in Afghanistan to install “their own brand of Islam” in Pakistan.