Monday’s suicide bombing of the U.S. consulate in Peshawar is the most brazen assault on U.S. interests by the Pakistani Taliban since its attack on the CIA facility in Khost, Afghanistan on December 30 last year. Some observers saw this latest attack as a sign of a resilient Pakistani Taliban. Yet, while it received international coverage, the attack does not necessarily indicate renewed strength from Pakistan’s Taliban, the Tehrik-e Taliban (TTP).
The TTP, founded in December 2007, has consistently lost ground to the Pakistani government over the last year-and-a-half. The Pakistani government has taken the fight to the enemy through a series of operations: Bajaur in August 2008, Swat in April 2009, Waziristan in October 2009, and a broad series of operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) beginning late last year and continuing through this spring — particularly an offensive in Orakzai.
In addition to these operations, the TTP has been undergoing a leadership crisis after the death in late January 2010 of Hakimullah Mehsud. Since that time, no successor has emerged, perhaps due to the fear that any new leader would quickly become a target. This fear is well-founded: Hakimullah’s short five-month reign began after a drone strike killed TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud. Moreover, the lack of militant-controlled territory in which to meet, in combination with an inability to travel freely due to drone strikes and military operations, has made it difficult for the TTP to hold the large shura, or conference, necessary to chose a new leader.
These challenges have hurt the TTP’s image as a strong member of the al Qaeda and Associated Movement network. Such groups actively compete for donations, recruits, and media attention. As organizations such as the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have achieved prominence in recent months, the TTP likely felt pressure to make headlines by striking a high-profile target in order to prove its vitality in the face of the Pakistani military’s onslaught across the FATA region.
Yet, while the consulate was a significant target, the group did not attack perhaps more prominent international, American, and Pakistani targets in Islamabad and Punjab. Indeed, though there was a spike in Punjab-based attacks in December 2009 following the Waziristan campaign, as few as three to four militant attacks have occurred in Islamabad and Punjab thus far in 2010. The TTP, either due to a lack of capacity to conduct such attacks or a lack of assistance from other militant groups in Pakistan, has been largely unable to project into these areas in recent months. Even if it emerges that responsibility for yesterday’s bomb blast in the Islamabad market lies with the TTP, the data show that the incident would be an aberration in the trend of diminished TTP capacity outside its home base in the FATA and North West Frontier Province.
The U.S. consulate in Peshawar, significantly, lies close to this home base. The TTP has used attacks in Peshawar when it wanted to show strength but either could not or did not want to reach Punjab: It attacked as many as six targets in Peshawar during the week of November 9, in the midst of the Waziristan campaign. Beyond the location choice, the consulate attack revealed operational weakness, as suicide bombers failed to penetrate the consulate compound and did not kill any Americans. The TTP spokesman nonetheless claimed responsibility for the incident almost immediately, indicating the TTP’s desire to make clear to the world that it should receive credit.
We should not discount the TTP — Monday’s deadly attack in Dir shows that they are still capable of significant violence — but we should recognize that the group may be acting in desperation to prove its vitality. In the coming days and weeks, the TTP may conduct further attacks across Pakistan in cities such as Karachi, or even in Punjab, to show strength. Yet such potential incidents and the Peshawar consulate attack should not overshadow the fact that the Pakistani military offensives have cost the TTP dearly, and that it remains an organization on the run.
Data on militant attacks in Pakistan, compiled by the Critical Threats Project team, provide further context to the Peshawar bombing and can be found here.
– Charlie Szrom is Senior Analyst and Program Manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.