(CNSNews.com) – A fresh escalation in an already serious security situation in Pakistan has prompted the government to ban the Taliban. The step goes beyond those taken by former President Pervez Musharraf during his almost nine years in power.
On Tuesday, gunmen opened fire on an American consular vehicle in Peshawar, capital of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), although police said no one was hurt.
The decision to outlaw the Taliban marks a shift in strategy for Islamabad. Since taking office after legislative elections last February, the central government of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and the NWFP provincial government have pursued a sporadic, and controversial, policy of negotiating with militants.
The same policy was attempted, without success, by Musharraf in 2006 in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which lie adjacent to the NWFP and straddle Pakistan’s porous border with Afghanistan.
The U.S. and Afghan governments, as well as NATO officials in Kabul, say the agreements have contributed to security problems inside Afghanistan.
Just days after Musharraf’s televised resignation last week, more than 70 people were killed in a double suicide bombing at a key munitions factory 30 miles from Islamabad.
In another attack on Monday, 10 people were killed when gunman stormed the home of a provincial lawmaker in the NWFP’s Swat valley, where a short-lived peace deal was hammered out with Taliban radicals last May.
Sher Zaman, a political party worker in Swat, said more than 15 political leaders in the area had been killed, in an apparent bid by the Taliban to weaken tribal and political structures and assume control.
The government attributed the incidents to the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella body of factions identifying themselves with the fundamentalist militia that ruled most of Afghanistan until toppled by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.
Since late last month, security forces have been fighting TTP militants in Swat and more recently in the Bajuar district of the FATA, and the group pledged to carry out more suicide attacks across the country in retaliation for the offensives.
On Sunday, the TTP offered a pre-Ramadan ceasefire in Bajuar in return for an end to the military operation in the area, where officials say hundreds of militants – including some foreign fighters – have been killed and hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced. Ramadan, the annual Islamic fasting month, begins next week.
In announcing the offer, TTP spokesman Maulvi Omar said the ceasefire would only apply to Bajuar and not necessarily mean an end to attacks elsewhere in the country.
The government rejected the offer, saying it would only talk to those who surrender and lay down their weapons. On Monday it announced that the group, which is led by Baitullah Mehsud, was being banned.
Interior Ministry advisor Rehman Malik told reporters the TTP was a terrorist organization. Its bank accounts and assets would be frozen, and anyone convicted of supporting or promoting the group would have their assets frozen and could face lengthy prison terms under anti-terror legislation.
Malik said the government was also considering announcing offering rewards for information leading to the arrest or killing of Taliban leaders.
The News, a leading English-language daily, in an editorial Tuesday praised the government’s shift.
“For once, the interior ministry seems to have got things right,” it said. “We have seen, many times, how such truce deals in the past have been broken by militants who use them primarily to re-group.”
The move comes at a time of political uncertainty in Pakistan, whose ruling coalition crumbled this week amid a dispute over whether to reinstate judges sacked by Musharraf last year.
Critics of the government say that while political factions squabble in Islamabad, the situation in the northwest of the country was approaching collapse.
Syed Irfan Ashraf, a Peshawar-based political analyst, said the displacement of an estimated 300,000 people in Bajuar would have “serious social and economic consequences.”
Muslim Khan, a TTP spokesman in Swat, scoffed at the ban announcement.
“Rahman Malik is mentally sick,” he told CNSNews.com. “When we have not registered the movement with the government, then how it can impose a ban? We have registered it with Allah Almighty and we will continue to struggle for the imposition of shari’a, whatever ban the government imposes on us.”
Khan said the government was emulating Musharraf, and acting merely to appease Washington.
Regional security analyst Bahukutumbi Raman voiced skepticism Tuesday about the banning decision, saying it was designed to placate the U.S. and convince it that Asif Ali Zardari – the de facto leader of the government who is running for president – “is as keen to fight against terrorism as Musharraf was.”
Raman, the director of the Institute for Topical Studies in Chennai, India, said the ban would make no difference to the TTP’s activities.
He recalled that when Musharraf in 2002 banned terrorist groups including Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), “they just changed their names and started operating under different names.”
(The LeT, a Sunni organization allied to al-Qaeda, attacked the Indian Parliament just months after 9/11. After its January 2002 banning, it changed its name to Jamaat al-Dawat, but has since then been linked to numerous further attacks, including deadly bombings in New Delhi in 2005.)
Raman said in the TTP’s case it would likely not even bother to change its name.
“Musharraf and Zardari try to create an impression of co-operating with the U.S. without actually doing so,” he said. “They try to create a cosmetic effect through seemingly bold statements, formal bans etc.”
Raman said if Pakistani leaders were sincere about anti-terror cooperation, they would take steps including locating and arresting or killing terrorist leaders and destroying the training infrastructure.
“One sees very little sign of such action.”
Security analyst Brig. Mehmod Shah saw one key upside to the ban: The government would no longer have moral or legal grounds to hold peace talks with the Taliban, he said.
According to data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal in Delhi, at least 596 people have been killed in more than 360 separate bomb attacks in Pakistan between the beginning of 2008 and August 19. The total number of civilian deaths in terror attacks of all kinds this year is 957.