Pakistan is gearing up for parliamentary elections, which are expected within months. However, experts say that Islamist militants could try to create panic and chaos in the country by launching fresh terrorist attacks.
Many in Pakistan and in the West doubt whether the incumbent Pakistan People's Party's government will be able to hold general elections in a safe and peaceful environment.
That militant Islamist groups are capable of creating havoc in the country is evident from the bomb blast in the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta (16.02.13) which killed at least 81 people and wounded more than 200. The target of the attack was the Shiite minority belonging to the ethnic Hazara community. The anti-Shiite militant group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Islamist terrorism has plagued Pakistan's progress for nearly a decade. However, Islamist violence has intensified and increased sharply in the past few years in the country. Terrorist attacks have been mostly perpetrated by the Pakistani Taliban on civilians and security forces but there has also been an increase in targeted killings of political and human rights activists, particularly in the southern port city of Karachi.
Terrorism has badly affected the economy of Pakistan, which heavily relies on the World Bank and the IMF assistance.
The West has often accused the Pakistani military and intelligence service the ISI of covertly backing al Qaeda and the Taliban so that it can use them as a bargaining chip while dealing with Kabul and Washington. Pakistan denies these allegations.
Wide range of targets
Taliban militants wreaked havoc on the country throughout 2012 as they targeted civilians and attacked sensitive military installations.
In August, militants armed with guns and rocket launchers attacked an air base in the town of Kamra in the Punjab province. The large base is home to several squadrons of fighter and surveillance planes, which air force officials said had not been damaged in the attack.
The Taliban indiscriminately killed innocent civilians in markets and places of worship, targeted international and national human rights and charity workers, journalists, and religious and sectarian minorities. The Taliban shooting of teenage activist Malala Yousafzai in northwestern Swat valley shocked the entire world. Most Pakistanis also condemned the attack on Malala, who is recuperating in the UK.
The year 2012 was one of the deadliest for Pakistan's Shiites. Human rights groups estimate that more than 300 Shiites have been killed in Pakistan this year so far in sectarian conflict.
In August, several gunmen dressed as Pakistani security officials stopped a bus traveling from Rawalpindi to the northwestern Gilgit region and dragged the passengers off the bus. The gunmen asked the passengers to show their identity cards and then shot 22 Shiites at point blank range.
It was the third such incident in six months. Pakistani experts say that although Shiite Muslims are also murdered in other parts of Pakistan, those living in the northwestern Gilgit-Baltistan region, a predominantly Shiite area, face systematic attacks by the Taliban and other militant groups. Some experts have even gone so far as calling it a "sectarian cleansing" of Shiites.
Fighting a losing battle?
Many in Pakistan think that the country has already lost the war against the Taliban. Experts say that the Islamist militants are not only creating havoc in the country by attacking civilians, but that they are also powerful enough to target sensitive military installations and liberal politicians.
Five years ago, the Taliban allegedly assassinated the country's most liberal politician and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in a suicide attack in Rawalpindi. Since then, the Islamists have killed a number of high-profile politicians, most of whom belong to the ruling PPP and the Awami National Party.
Experts like Malik Siraj Akbar, who is based in the US, are critical of Pakistan's response to the Taliban and the menace of terrorism. Akbar told DW in an interview that the main reason liberal Pakistani parties faced a dilemma was that Pakistan had not officially owned the war on terror. "Pakistan is not ideologically convinced that it is its war."
For this reason, counter-extremism and counter-terrorism experts in Pakistan say liberal parties have not been able to get the masses behind them in the fight against terror.