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Asia

Pakistan jailbreak proves Taliban's growing power

Pakistan has elected a new president but experts are skeptical about the new government's ability to deal with the Taliban, who have proved their might again by raiding a jail and freeing nearly 250 of their comrades.

Hours before Pakistani lawmakers began voting to elect President Asif Ali Zardari's successor on Tuesday, July 30, Taliban militants launched a massive attack on the Central Prison in the northwestern town of Dera Ismail Khan, which is 367 kilometers away from the capital Islamabad. Up to 40 gunmen dressed in police uniforms bombed the outside wall of the jail and opened fire on the security guards, managing to free at least 250 of their comrades, including some who had been considered to be dangerous terrorists. It took the Taliban only a few hours to accomplish their mission despite the fact that the Pakistani military has a base camp close to the jail.

It is not the first time the Afghan or Pakistani Taliban have broken into jails. In April 2012, nearly 400 prisoners escaped from a jail outside northwestern town of Bannu during a similar militant raid. A year later, almost 500 Taliban inmates made it out of an Afghan prison in southern Kandahar province.

Pakistan's President-elect, Mamnoon Hussain (Photo: AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistan will swear Hussain in for his largely ceremonial post on September 9

Experts say that the latest jailbreak proves two things: One, that the Taliban are more powerful in Pakistan than ever; and two, that the new Pakistani government - which has categorically said it will not pursue the preceding Pakistan People's Party's government's anti-Taliban policy - has no grip on security.

The 73-year-old Mamnoon Hussain - a close ally of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif - has been elected as the Islamic republic's new president but unlike President Zardari, the President-elect Hussain will largely be a ceremonial president following the orders of his party chief, PM Nawaz Sharif. He will have no say in determining government policies. It is Sharif who calls the shots. After winning the May 11 parliamentary elections, Sharif had made it clear that his conservative Muslim League party would rather engage in "peace talks" with Islamist militants than launching military operations. Center-right Tehreek-e-Insaf or the Movement for Justice party of Imran Khan, which has a government in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, is also against military action against the Taliban.

Connivance or incompetence?

Mahnaz Rahman, a veteran rights activist in Karachi, told DW that the Taliban prison raid was just another sign how bold the militants had become in Pakistan. "It definitely shows the incompetence of Pakistan's law enforcing agencies but I also think that an attack of this scale could not have been successful without the connivance of intelligence and security forces," Rahman said, adding that the Taliban had probably known they would not face much resistance from the police.

Rahman is not the only person who thinks like this. Many in Pakistan and abroad believe that certain segments of Pakistani intelligence agencies and the army covertly support the Taliban.

Siegfried O'Wolf, a political science expert at Heidelberg University, says he is convinced that several elements within the Pakistan security apparatus support the Taliban. Matt Waldman, a researcher on the Afghanistan conflict at Harvard University, is also of the opinion that there is "evidence" that the ISI continues with its policy to support the Taliban and other Islamist organizations. These experts believe that the Taliban cannot launch attacks so freely in most parts of the country without the support from government agencies.

Media reports suggest that the Islamists are spreading from semi-governed tribal areas to major Pakistani cities.

The Taliban have killed several thousand Pakistanis in the last ten years and have attacked both civilians and security forces. The militants want to impose their strict Shariah law upon people in Pakistan.

Confusion

Experts say the new government seems clueless about how to deal with the Taliban and other Islamist militants. The most recent jailbreak incident has made things even more confused for the new leaders. Sharif's and Khan's parties both blame each other for the deteriorating security situation. Sharif's central government in Islamabad says it is the responsibility of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's provincial government to deal with the issue of militancy whereas Khan's party claims the central government and the military decide security and anti-terrorism policies.

The picture shows a pro-Taliban supporter standing in front of a graffiti reading 'Ameer-ul-Momneen Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid Zindabad (long live holy fighter)' in Killi Nalai, a village near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, during a religious gathering(Photo: BANARAS KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Experts say the Taliban's reach is growing

Peshawar-based development worker and political activist Maqsood Ahmad Jan believes the new rulers are confused and have no clear-cut strategy on how to counter terrorism in the country. "Sharif and Khan have no idea how to deal with the Taliban. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa chief minister recently said he did not know who was behind the terrorist attacks in his province," said Jan.

Jan is of the opinion that the new rulers have turned a blind eye to Taliban atrocities and that such incidents are happening because Sharif and Khan are in favor of talks with the extremists.

"The result is that the radicals are getting bolder," Jan told DW.

Muhammad Qasim Khan, an advisor to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's chief minister Pervez Khatak, told DW that Sharif's government was deliberately trying to create problems for the provincial government. "We asked the central government to move the Taliban prisoners to more secure jails. The Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) come under Islamabad's jurisdiction and so do the prisoners from these areas. But it is obvious that Islamabad wants us to fail," Khan said.

Zardari's controversial legacy

President Zardari - whose five-year-term is ending on September 9 - was clear about his government's policy towards the Islamists. Several military operations were launched against the Taliban during his presidency, albeit not enough to curb the militancy. His alliance with the United States and support of its unpopular "war on terror" in Pakistan cost him his government though. Pakistanis rejected his People's Party in May 11 elections and instead voted for parties which were ready to make peace with the Taliban.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari with his son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (Photo: AP/Saurabh Das)

Zardari leaves a violence-marred country behind

In his last speech to the joint session of the parliament's lower house and upper house, or National Assembly and Senate respectively, before the end of his presidency, Zardari urged the new government to stand firm against the militants.

"The nation is united against militancy. We need strong leadership to overcome the threat," he said to newly-elected parliamentarians. "We are ready to make peace with those willing to give up violence. But we should also be ready to use force against those who challenge the writ of the state."

But will the new government pay heed to Zardari's advice? Can the Dera Ismail Khan prison break be a watershed event for the new rulers, upon which they finally decide to act against the Islamists?

Rahman thinks it is unlikely but "we should give the new rulers at least 100 days" before reaching a conclusion about their anti-terrorism stance. Others think it will probably be too late by then.