Taliban strikes

Print edition : January 25, 2013

The father of a woman aid worker, who was killed by gunmen, mourns her death at a hospital in Swabi on January 1. Photo: Mohammad Sajjad/AP

GUNMEN killed six Pakistani female aid workers and a male doctor on January 1 in what appears to be the latest attack by Islamist militants on teams involved in public health campaigns.

In recent days, Pakistan has seen much violence, with dozens dying in a string of terrorist attacks. Analysts blame many of the strikes on militant groups keen to demonstrate their ability to cause casualties after the government rejected the Taliban’s call for ceasefire negotiations late last month. “They are signalling to the people that the pain they are suffering is in fact the government’s fault because their offer of peace was rejected,” said Ejaz Haider, of the Jinnah Institute, a think tank in the capital, Islamabad. The militants have been stung by a loss of public support after indiscriminate attacks last year, a lack of economic development in the areas where they are strong, deals concluded by the authorities with some leading local extremist commanders, and the ongoing strikes by the United States’ drones. The January 1 attack came in Swabi district, about 70 kilometres north-west of Islamabad, and was the first attack on aid workers in the area. In Karachi, a bomb exploded near the headquarters of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), killing at least one person and injuring dozens. Leaders of militant religious groups have threatened to target the MQM, which has spoken out against extremism.

The coalition of factions known as the Pakistani Taliban is mainly based in the north-west of the country but has a presence in Karachi. It has repeatedly threatened health workers with violence, claiming immunisation campaigns are part of Western plots to spy, make Muslims infertile or otherwise harm the community. A more mundane reason for the threats is that the presence of non-governmental organisations threatens the extremists’ authority in areas which they are finding increasingly difficult to control simply through violence.

The workers who died in the latest attack were employed by Support with Working Solutions, which ran a school and dispensary in Swabi and helped vaccinate children against polio. The ongoing violence in Pakistan has regional implications. One possible reason for Pakistan’s release of several high-ranking figures in the Afghan Taliban in recent months—eight were reported to have been released on December 30, bringing the total to more than 20—is that policymakers and strategists are increasingly convinced that the instability in the west of the country is linked to the ongoing conflict in the neighbouring state, and that a resolution for both requires a better relationship with Kabul. The release of the Taliban figures has been a key demand made to the Pakistani government by Afghan negotiators. It is hoped they can act as intermediaries between the Afghan government and those Taliban commanders who are still fighting international troops in Afghanistan.

Jason Burke

© Guardian News & Media 2013