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Sectarian Violence in Peshawar Bodes Ill for Pakistan


By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security

November of 2013 saw clashes between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, and though clashes between the two sects are nothing new the violence that occurred at that time was remarkable. Since the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Pakistan has faced increasing violence among different religious sects and different ethnic groups. Much of this infighting had been contained under the military regime led by former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, but as the military began losing its political wherewithal to civilian political parties the violence has steadily increased. Furthermore, some political movements were targeted by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) for providing intelligence to the U.S. and the Pakistani government in the midst of several military operations in the so-called tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. In essence, the escalation of violence – particularly in diverse cities such as Karachi and Peshawar will likely continue.

The violence over the last few days in Peshawar, however, may be sectarian on the surface, but likely represents a continuing attempt by the TTP to force the government to the negotiating table. On Sunday evening a suicide bombing struck a movie theater, Tuesday saw another suicide bombing at a hotel frequented by visiting Shia, also Tuesday a prominent Shia leader was gunned down outside the Lady Reading Hospital, and a prominent Shia scholar was killed on Monday. All of these events occurred in Peshawar within days of the government refusing to meet for peace talks with the TTP. The targeting of Shia is academic in many ways, yet there is a more practical purpose beyond historical animosity. By targeting a specific sect in a restive city the Taliban are trying to force Islamabad to the negotiating table. The TTP runs the risk of overplaying its hand, however. Pakistan is a diverse nation with multiple political parties, ethnicities, and religious sects that may pressure the government to use military force instead of diplomacy to tackle the TTP – a potentially dangerous premise.

Pakistan has fought several internal conflicts in the last 13 plus years against Taliban militancy, but the military operations have never resulted in a net gain for the state. In that time the civilian government has struggled to assert itself in the areas under TTP control which calls into question the efficacy of any future military operation. This places Islamabad in a bind – either the state talks peace and risks the support of numerous ethnic and religious sects, or it launches a military operation that could easily escalate. It would seem that all parties involved lack the strength to truly assert their writ and the result of an escalation in conflict would more resemble a dissolution of the state rather than a recognizable civil war. Though it may seem premature to talk about such disastrous propositions, remember that Pakistan has only known marginal stability at the hands of a military dictatorship. A weakened military complex with a equally weak civilian government doesn’t bode well for a nation-state under significant stress. The best that could be hoped for in the near-term is some form of internationally backed peace talks with the TTP. Unfortunately, the plethora of conflicts stretching from North Africa to the contested waters in East Asia make this premise remote at best.