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PAKISTAN: Suicide Bombers – Chickens Coming Home to Roost

Analysis by Amir Mir

ISLAMABAD, Feb 28 2008 (IPS) - The assassination on Monday of the surgeon-general of Pakistan’s armed forces in the garrison town of Rawalpindi has brought home the enormity of the threat posed by suicide bombers – once nurtured by the establishment to fight the enemies of Islam in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Till recently, human bombs were merely puzzling headlines for most Pakistanis – a part of the death and destruction in West Asia, Afghanistan and Kashmir. But with Monday’s killings outside army headquarters, of Lt. Gen. Mushtaq Ahmad Baig and seven others, representing the latest in a series of suicide bombings over the past year, it is clear that the chickens were coming home to roost.

The trend of suicide attacks within Pakistan touched alarming heights in 2007, averaging more than one attack a week, as per official figures released by the ministry of interior. Analysts say there is no unifying theme to the spate of suicide bombings other than purging the ‘land of the pure’ of the ‘forces representing the infidel.’

Former prime minister and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chairperson Benazir Bhutto’s Dec. 27 assassination was a high-profile instance of a suicide attack. But last year, there were 56 incidents of suicide bombings in the country, killing 422 personnel of the army and police besides 220 civilians. Since the dawn of 2008, the country has seen 10 incidents of suicide bombings, killing 153 people; who include 98 civilians, 30 military personnel and 25 policemen.

Commenting on Monday’s attack, interior minister Lt. Gen. (retd) Hamid Nawaz said probes into the phenomenon have shown that most suicide bombers were young men in their 20s, coming typically from the trouble-stricken Federally Administered Tribal Areas of South and North Waziristan on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Nawaz pointed out that there had been only 12 suicide attacks all over Pakistan between Jan. 1 and Jul. 3 of last year, killing 75 people. A turning point came with the army siege of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid in July 2007 to flush it of extremists who had turned into an armed fortress. As the army operations came to an end, on Jul. 10, Islamist militants operating from the tribal areas had warned soldiers to be prepared to face suicide attacks.

As many as 15 suicide strikes were recorded between Jul. 14 and 27 – an average of one a day – mostly targeting security forces. Of the 44 suicide attacks carried out in the second half of 2007, half a dozen were targeted against the political leadership, including Bhutto, while the remaining 38 were against targets associated with the army.

Farooq Hasnat, former chairman of the Punjab University’s political science department, told IPS that militants, groomed by the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, seem to have declared war against their former masters who have been nurturing them since the 1980s to advance their geo-strategic agenda in neighbouring India and Afghanistan. Importantly, he said, the current wave of suicide attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan signifies the revival of the al-Qaeda and the Taliban networks.

Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, the former interior minister who has survived two suicide attacks, told IPS that two kinds of extremist groups are apparently involved in the ongoing wave of suicide bombings. “The first sort are sectarian, primarily the banned militant Sunni group, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), infamous for its secrecy, lethal nature and unrelenting in its targeting of Western interests in Pakistan and the Shias and the plan to eventually transform the country into a Taliban-style Islamic state.”

Sherpao said the second kind of suicide bombers were members of pro-Taliban groups operating from the Waziristan region. In this rocky and far-flung area, he said, Islamist rebels allied to the Afghan Taliban militia and al-Qaeda have taken control of virtually all of the North Waziristan area, making it a base from which to wage war against the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan as well as the Pakistani security forces. Sherpao added that their main weapon appeared to be highly motivated and lethal suicide bombers.

Maj. Gen. (retd) Naseerullah Babar, a PPP leader and former interior minister, says the origin of most of these militant groups can be traced to outfits that the Pakistani establishment supported for operations in Kashmir and Afghanistan. “But, irritated by the Musharraf regime’s U-turn on Kashmir and Afghan policies, the jehadi monster has taken to wreaking revenge against those he feels has betrayed him.”

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