‘Terrorism Has Returned’: Pakistan Grapples With Attack That Left 101 Dead
From the New York Times
By Christina Goldbaum, Salman Masood and Zia ur-Rehman
Jan. 31, 2023Updated 9:16 p.m. ET
A suicide bomber’s blast ended more than 100 lives in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, devastating a mosque in a supposedly secure sector of the city, and sending smoke plumes into the sky and panic through the streets.
But more than that: The attack on Monday knocked a terrorism-scarred city back in time, to the era a decade ago when Peshawar became synonymous with the wreckage of a militant campaign that profoundly changed a nation.
In the years after 2015, when Pakistani Taliban fighters and other militants were mostly pushed out of the region — many into neighboring Afghanistan — Peshawar residents dared to hope that the days of random terrorist attacks were behind them.
But on Tuesday, as emergency responders pulled body after body from the rubble, questions immediately intensified about the government’s ability to fight a new wave of militancy amid a seemingly intractable economic and political crisis.
The bombing was one of the bloodiest suicide attacks to hit Pakistan in years, killing at least 101 people and wounding 217 others, hospital officials said. Many of the casualties were police officers and government employees who had gone to pray at the mosque, in a heavily guarded neighborhood near several important government and military buildings.
The attack has added to recent evidence that the Pakistani Taliban, a faction of which claimed responsibility, is regaining strength from safe havens in Afghanistan under that country’s new government.
“The scale of this attack, that it targeted policemen at a mosque in a secure part of Peshawar — this really brings about a sense of déjà vu, a vivid reminder of the insecurity and violence that engulfed Pakistan a decade ago,” said Madiha Afzal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution.
In Peshawar, the memory of those days is visceral — and the sense of loss from the attack is profound. As dusk fell on Tuesday, and the shaken city gathered to bury rows and rows of coffins, many were wondering: Have the days of blood and horror returned? And if they have, where will the country go from here?
“For a few years, there was calm and peace in Peshawar,” said Akbar Mohmand, 34, a rickshaw driver in the city. “But it seems that suicide bombing and terrorism has returned.”
For most of the past 40 years, Peshawar has suffered from the conflicts in the region. In the 1980s, it became a staging ground for fighters struggling against the Soviet-backed Afghan government, and after the United States toppled Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in 2001, thousands of Taliban fighters and Al Qaeda members took refuge in so-called tribal areas along the border.
For years, Taliban leaders recruited Pakistanis who, like the Afghan Taliban, were ethnically Pashtun, while Pakistani military authorities tried to drive the militants out.
By 2007, a loose network of militants had asserted their own leadership and formed the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or T.T.P. The group quickly emerged as one of Pakistan’s deadliest militant organizations, carrying out attacks across the country.
During that time, Peshawar became the center of the conflict. In one of the group’s largest attacks, in December 2014, Taliban militants killed 147 students and teachers at an army-run public school — giving new impetus to a Pakistani military offensive that flushed most T.T.P. fighters into Afghanistan.
When the Afghan Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, Pakistani officials were hopeful that after years of covertly supporting them, the new government would help rein in the T.T.P.
On Tuesday, as emergency responders pulled bodies from the rubble, questions intensified about the government’s ability to fight a new wave of militancy amid the country’s economic and political crisis.Credit…Arshad Arbab/EPA, via Shutterstock
But so far, that bet has not paid off. The Afghan Taliban has refused to lean on the T.T.P., analysts say, instead insisting Pakistan address its grievances. The Afghan Taliban hosted negotiations in Kabul last year but the mediation proved fruitless — and relations between Afghan and Pakistani authorities have become strained.
And in the midst of those talks, the Pakistani Taliban were able to regroup, analysts say. In Swat, a picturesque northern valley that the T.T.P. once effectively controlled, residents watched last August as militants flooded back — bringing terror with them, they said.
Wealthy businessmen, elected representatives and doctors began receiving anonymous calls, made from Afghanistan and within Pakistan, demanding they either pay hefty extortion sums or move to other cities. The surge in extortion and threats of violence prompted thousands of protesters to flood the streets of Swat in October, demanding the government keep the peace.
“People are living in an atmosphere of panic and uncertainty in the valley because of the resurgence of Taliban violence,” said Majid Ali, 26, a university student who attended several protests. “But the people will not allow anyone to destroy peace in the name of the Taliban in the region.”
The attack in Peshawar comes at a time of immense economic and political upheaval that critics say has consumed Pakistan’s leaders and drawn attention away from security threats, including the T.T.P. and the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, which has also stepped up its attacks.
Caskets for the victims inside the police headquarters in Peshawar on Monday. Around the city, there is widespread talk of migrating to comparatively safer places, such as Islamabad and Lahore.Credit…Abdul Majeed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Amid the finger-pointing of the political elite on Tuesday, there were also whispers the military may consider launching another counteroffensive like that in 2014. But today any such offensive would be complicated by the Pakistani authorities’ tenuous relationship with the new government in Afghanistan.
“The most successful counterterrorism response would likely be one that focuses on the epicenter of the T.T.P.s’ power right now — and that’s in Afghanistan, where the group’s leadership is based,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center. “If Pakistan were to carry out counterterrorism activities that are cross-border in nature that could send tensions with the Taliban in Afghanistan through the stratosphere — and that’s the last thing Pakistan needs.”
Even as Pakistan’s police beefed up their presence on Tuesday, many are not planning to wait for the government to figure out its response. There is already widespread talk of migrating to comparatively safer cities, such as Islamabad and Lahore.
“Not a single city is safe in Pakistan, but if compared to Peshawar, one can find comparatively calmer and peaceful,” said Mukhtiar Masih, a Christian sanitary worker.
Mr. Masih lost a friend in a 2013 suicide bombing that killed more than 120 people in a Peshawar church — and he is terrified of renewed violence. He spent Tuesday calling friends in Lahore, where there is a sizable Christian community, and beginning to pack his bags.
“I have lived in Peshawar during the peak of terrorism from 2009 to 2013,” he said. “I know how difficult it is to live.”
Christina Goldbaum is a correspondent in the Kabul, Afghanistan, bureau.