Hundreds of Pakistani Taliban stormed checkpoints near Peshawar with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles blazing in coordinated strikes on Thursday, capturing 23 outgunned tribal security men in the rugged northwest near the border with Afghanistan.
After holding and terrorising them for three days, 21 officers were taken to a cricket pitch, blindfolded, and shot dead, one-by-one, against a wall. The bodies were left where they fell on Saturday as a grisly message for ethnic Pashtuns contemplating joining paramilitary forces opposing the Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.
The killings came a day after Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, in a rare on-camera interview, offered to negotiate with the government of Pakistan. His offer was conditional, “we will not lay down our guns”, he said.
Pakistani Taliban leader in video message
A week earlier a suicide bomber strolled into a political rally in Pakistan’s northwest and blew himself up alongside nine other people – including his target, veteran politician Bashir Bilour.
A vocal critic of violent hardliners, Bilour consistently challenged them – as well as Pakistan’s military – for its backing of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan since the 1990s. He also denounced world powers for playing the “Great Game” in Central Asia.
“Unless there is peace in Afghanistan, there will be no peace in Pakistan,” Bilour told reporters in November 2010. “Superpowers are engaged in an unannounced Third World War in Afghanistan, and unfortunately Pakistan is in the eye of the storm.”
After his assassination that Saturday, Bilour’s words have gained new significance in the corridors of power in Pakistan, amid growing anxiety over the forthcoming United States military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and as a struggle for power over tribal areas along the porous border intensifies.
Both Pakistan’s military and civilian leadership are fearful of violence spilling over the border as the more than 100,000 foreign troops leave in 2014.
Military officials and Western diplomats say Pakistan’s powerful military commander, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, has made finding a political solution to the war in Afghanistan his “top priority”.
Pakistan’s military has agreed to release Taliban commanders and fighters as part of an agreement with the Afghan government intended to bring all parties to the negotiating table. The end goal is to transform the Afghan Taliban into a political force.
Ahmed Rashid, author of “Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia”, said the situation is a major turning point for Pakistan’s military, which has for years been accused of aiding and abetting some of the most violent Taliban elements.
“The army, which has endured heavy casualties fighting the Pakistani Taliban, is deeply reluctant to get involved in more fighting,” Rashid told Al Jazeera from Lahore. “General Kayani is now banking on the hope that reconciliation among the Afghans will have a trickle-down positive effect on the Pakistani Taliban – depriving them of legitimacy and recruits.”
Ayesha Siddiqa, author of “Military, Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy”, told Al Jazeera that the country’s military is banking on its long-standing relationship with the Afghan Taliban to achieve peace in the war-torn country.
“For military commanders it’s about an old partnership. Pakistan’s army is not known to abandon its friends. It doesn’t leave those who’ve helped it in the past,” Siddiqa said.
It has taken more than a decade for Pakistani generals to figure out their strategy for Afghanistan. The military has tried previously to broker peace agreements with various armed groups following the US invasion in 2001.
But the contradictory policy of supporting some insurgents and not others has largely failed, said professor Hassan Abbas from National Defense University in Washington, DC.
“The purpose of these deals was to limit the conflict zone from expanding, and avoid a head-on collision with the militants … [However] these deals proved to be counterproductive,” Abbas wrote in a 2010 research paper.
While the US-led fight has neutralised many armed groups and individuals, the offensive has also resulted in the creation of one of the most deadly organisations in the world – the Pakistani Taliban.
Many Arab al-Qaeda fighters fled the United States’ “war on terror” in Afghanistan, seeking refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas in 2002, and five-years later the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan was officially born.
“That was the turning point when the Arabs were given shelter by these tribes, they became mentors to young, impressionable [tribal] leaders,” said Rashid. “With their arrival began a much deeper process of radicalisation for Pakistan’s fiercely independent tribes. This made them more radical and vicious than the Afghan fighters.”
The Taliban movement in Pakistan quickly gained notoriety for using suicide bombers as a weapon of choice. Former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto was among more than 5,300 Pakistanis killed in suicide attacks since 2002.
“In North Waziristan, you can buy a suicide bomber from anywhere between $5,000 to $11,000,” says Syed Irfan Ashraf, who has studied Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. The money most often goes to the attackers’ impoverished families.
But monetary benefits are only part of the lure of the Pakistani Taliban. The movement’s rise can also be attributed to an expansionist interpretation of Islam, Rashid said.
“In Afghanistan, the Taliban is still a peasant army. In Pakistan, its different – they’re ideologically primed, they have studied at madrasas,” he said. “A few religious political parties have also nurtured its leaders, [and] as a result they have a lot more political acumen and vision.”
Senior minister killed in Pakistan
This vision – of a “global Islam” based on the al-Qaeda model in which Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis and others can network and pool resources – is an important reason why Pakistan’s military establishment is eager for a settlement in Afghanistan.
In the past, it was easy for the Pakistani military to control different groups because of tribal and ideological divisions, but now these differences are proving to be a disadvantage because the groups often fight each other over influence and tribal allegiances.
Taliban commander Mullah Muhamad Nazir survived but was wounded in a suicide attack in Wana, capital of the South Waziristan tribal area, which killed eight others.
Nazir is part of the Haqqani network and has a deal in place with Pakistan’s army. Hours after the attack, Nazir ordered the expulsion of all fighters who belong to the Mehsud tribe – the core group behind Pakistan’s Taliban movement.
Azaz Syed, a correspondent for Pakistan’s GEO television network, said it would be harder for the Afghan Taliban to influence Pakistan’s Taliban if violence continues to escalate.
“The Americans have given the [Pakistani] army a free hand in Afghanistan, and the Afghan Taliban have given an assurance to resolve the Pakistani Taliban issue. But there’s a big question mark on whether these promises will be fulfilled,” said Syed.
Enforcing any peace deals with a fragmented Taliban movement may become impossible once US troops leave, said Rashid, adding after a decade of fighting the Afghan Taliban wants to consolidate its gains without diktats from the Pakistanis.
“The Afghan Taliban faces an awkward perpetual situation,” said Rashid. “They are tired. They want to return back to Afghanistan. Their leaders do not want to be under the thumb of the Pakistan military any longer.”
Follow Ali Mustafa on Twitter: @Ali_Mustafa