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Motives behind the attack on U.S. consulate in Peshawar

By Imtiaz Gul

Foreign Policy Apr 05, 2010

The Monday attack on the U.S. consulate in Peshawar marked the first most-coordinated and well-planned direct strike on a U.S. interest in Pakistan. The combination of a suicide attack and the storming of the "heavily fortified" building by attackers reportedly disguised as members of a paramilitary force -- the Frontier Constabulary -- involved two vehicles and at least 100 kilograms of high-grade explosives. When the paramilitary, deployed to protect the consulate, tried to stop the attacking vehicles, the terrorists inside detonated the explosives , shattering windows of houses all around, and rocking homes as far as one kilometer away.

The commando-style raid and the rocket fire made it abundantly clear that the U.S. consulate was the obvious target in a city that is located closest to the militants' main strongholds such as the Orakzai, Khyber, Mohmand, and Kurram tribal regions that surround Peshawar, and thus turning the city into a volatile nerve centre. In the last quarter of the last year, this city experienced a suicide bombing every 36 hours, according to the police chief Naveed Malik, triggering fears the Taliban might sweep it.

The latest attack has led to many questions such as: What was the driving motivation behind this kind of terrorist attack? Was it an act of despair or an expression of strength?

Analysts and Pakistani intelligence officials believe there could be several motives behind this strike which the militants used to:

1. To distract the army from its operation in the neighboring Orakzai tribal region, where the army and the air force have been chasing militants with several self-casualties in recent weeks.

2. Underscore their opposition to the United States and its allies because they believe Peshawar is being used as the staging post for the anti-terror campaign in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan

3. Project the militant power and disprove the government claims that the back of the militant network has been broken as a result of last October's South Waziristan operation.

4. Underline they can hit and run at will, and penetrate even the most elaborate security cordon --like the one that surrounded the U.S. consulate. (It was a typical attack in which the first wave of attackers would distract the security forces by blowing up grenades or exploding the ammunition, and the second wave would attempt to storm the facility.)

5. And lastly, display their contempt for the security apparatus that Islamist radicals believe are in cahoots with the United States security establishment.

Although the policing capacity within the embattled Northwestern Frontier Province (being renamed as Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa) and the paramilitary forces within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have also improved, yet it shall have to be backed up by electronic surveillance -- intelligence gathering -- to infiltrate the ranks of the militants, and thus undermine the planning of terrorism.

A very senior police official (who asked to remain anonymous), who also looked after an intelligence outfit until recently, says successfully fighting the insurgency would require comprehensive revamping of the civilian and military intelligence network. Unless we infiltrate their ranks, sporadic suicide and other attacks would be hard to prevent, he maintains.

The militants also proved once again that they can change tactics as and when necessary; they were reportedly wearing paramilitary forces fatigues, something that the attackers of the General Headquarter (GHQ), the heart of the army power, did on Oct.10, 2009 or the suicide bomber that blew up the U.N. (World Food Program) office on October 5, 2009 last year.

Most analysts agree that despite the relative successes the army secured in Swat and South Waziristan last year and the state institutions' improved level of response to the militant threat, Pakistan's security apparatus has a long way to go yet. Improved human and electronic intelligence gathering and a real profession reinforced policing apparatus would be the key to whittling down insurgency.

(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk