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Asia

Is Pakistan finally going after the Taliban?

Islamabad has launched an offensive against militant Islamists in its northwestern region. In response, Islamists, too, have intensified their attacks.

For years, the United States has been demanding that Islamabad launch a military action against the extremist Haqqani Network in its semi-governed region of North Waziristan.

The US believes the area is being used by al Qaeda and Taliban operatives as a base to launch attacks on international troops in neighboring Afghanistan. Pakistan, however, had always refused to comply, telling Washington that the time was not right to start a full-scale offensive against the militants.

But it seems Islamabad has finally decided to go after the Islamists. Pakistani jets started to bomb the militant hideouts on Monday, January 20. According to the Pakistani military officials, 40 insurgents, mostly foreign nationals, were killed in these airstrikes. They claim three German citizens with links to al Qaeda were also among the dead. Wali Muhammad, a Pakistani Taliban commander, was also reportedly killed in these strikes.

Pakistan Shiites protest over bus bombing in Balochistan (Photo: DW/Abdul Ghani Kakar)

The sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Pakistan is getting uglier by the day

Pakistani officials say that some of those killed were involved in a January 19 attack on the country's paramilitary troops in the northwestern city of Bannu, and a double suicide bombing on a Peshawar church in September last year, which killed more than 80 people.

Security experts believe the strikes are likely to hamper the Pakistani government's efforts to start a dialogue with the militants.

Militants react

The Taliban and their partner Sunni extremist groups had already rejected Islamabad's talks offer. Now, after the airstrikes in North Waziristan, they seem all the more determined to create unrest in the country. Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, warned that his group would be compelled to take revenge.

In the past few days, the level of violence has certainly gone up. On Tuesday, January 21, the militants bombed a passenger bus carrying 51 Shiite pilgrims from Iran to Pakistan's western Balochistan province. Authorities confirmed 24 deaths in the attack, which took place in the Mastung district near the Pakistani-Iranian Taftan border.

The following day, the Taliban targeted a polio vaccination team in the northwest of the country, killing six policemen guarding the vaccinators and a boy. It was the second such attack in as many days targeting heath workers. A day earlier, four gunmen opened fire on a medical team in the southern city of Karachi, killing three health workers including two women. The killings come just days after Pakistani authorities began a nationwide drive to eradicate polio, which remains endemic in the country. The Islamists oppose polio inoculations as "anti-Islam."

Future of 'peace talks'

After returning to power in 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made clear his government would not follow the previous government's anti-terrorism policy and would instead make peace with militants, including the Taliban.

Critics of the government, however, are against talks with the Taliban. They believe that concessions to the extremists will only embolden them. They say the talks are bound to fail because the Taliban neither believe in the parliamentary system of governance nor the constitution of Pakistan. They also point out that there are multiple factions of the Taliban, and that nobody knows who the real representatives of the Islamists are.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (R) and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attend a joint news conference in Kabul November 30, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Mohammad)

Sharif announced that his government would support Afghanistan's peace initiative with the Taliban

Nizamuddin Nizamani, a political analyst and researcher in Karachi, believes the future of the proposed "peace talks" with the Taliban is more uncertain than ever after recent events. But he also adds there is no need to negotiate with "terrorists," and that they should be "eliminated."

"The government might be interested in negotiating with the militants, but the Taliban and their allies have shown no interest in proposed talks so far. On the contrary, they have intensified their attacks," said Nizamani.

Shiite cleric Allama Ameen Shaheedi agrees: "Those who are dreaming to make peace with the Taliban live in a fool's paradise," Shaheedi told DW. "The Taliban have not ceased their violent attacks even for a day. The military operation is the only way to deal with them. The state must assert its power and save the country from these terrorists," he said.

No clear strategy

Depite the recent airstrikes against the extremists, security experts doubt the Pakistani government intends to curb terrorism.

A polio worker administers polio vaccine to a child, in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, 24 October 2013 (Photo: EPA/ARSHAD ARBAB)

Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only countries in the world where polio remains endemic

Nizamani says the current military operation in North Waziristan "should not be viewed as a proper military offensive and hence not be mistaken for a change in policy." The analyst believes Pakistani leaders are still not clear about how to counter terrorism.

"This is not a military operation," Nizamani told DW. "The government says the airstrikes are actually in retaliation to the Taliban attacks on Pakistani soldiers. It is nothing more than that. The government doesn't have a strategy to fight the militants. Don't mistake these strikes for a resolution to eliminate terrorists," he added.