A surge of violence in northwest Pakistan culminating in the assassination of a senior provincial minister has raised fears of a renewed Taliban campaign that could threaten national elections, analysts say.
The province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the adjacent Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, which border Afghanistan, are on the frontline of the country’s battle against Islamist militancy and are no strangers to violence.
But the past week has seen a noticeable rise in bloodshed, with more than 40 people killed in near-daily attacks. These culminated in Saturday’s suicide bombing at a meeting of the Awami National Party (ANP) in Peshawar, the province’s main city.
The blast, which killed nine including provincial number two Bashir Bilour, was claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, who said the minister was targeted in revenge for the death of one of the movement’s “elders”.
The surge of violence began on December 15 with a spectacular commando-style Taliban attack on Peshawar airport and also featured a car bomb near a local government office in Khyber tribal district that killed 21 people.
For the Taliban, killing a high-profile and outspoken critic such as Bilour has a double effect, Askari said: silencing an experienced and fearless adversary and striking fear into those who might think of following in his footsteps.
The coalition government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — which also includes the ANP — will complete its five-year term in March and insists elections will be held on time.
But no date has yet been announced for polls and there are rumours the ballot could be postponed if the security situation is deemed too precarious.
Retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a security and political analyst, said the Taliban were stepping up their assaults on political and military targets precisely to create this kind of anarchy.
If elections go ahead successfully it will be the first time in Pakistan’s turbulent history that an elected civilian government has completed a five-year term. Both Askari and Masood said the government would find it difficult to delay the vote, paving the way for a bloody campaign period.
Thursday is the fifth anniversary of the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, killed in a gun and suicide attack in the garrison city of Rawalpindi after addressing an election rally.
Brigadier Saad Khan, a former officer with the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, warned the Taliban may continue their campaign with an attack on events marking the anniversary. These include a major speech by her son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the PPP chairman.
Khan described the security situation as grave, saying the militants were “waging a war for Peshawar”. He compared it to the state of affairs before a major military offensive against militant hideouts and training camps in South Waziristan in 2009.
He criticised the current strategy for dealing with the militants as “half-hearted” and urged a more concerted effort to defeat them.