Page last updated at 18:33 GMT, Thursday, 21 August 2008 19:33 UK

Spiral of violence threatens Pakistan

As Taleban militants inflict the deadliest attack on a military site in Pakistan's history, the BBC's Syed Shoaib Hasan examines the threat insurgents pose to Pakistan's stability.

Militant in Pakistan
There are daily clashes in the north-west between militants and the army
It was only a matter of time before Taleban militants employed their best weapon - the suicide bomber.

The double bombing outside Pakistan's main munitions factory in the town of Wah killed at least 63 people.

In the aftermath of the attack, a Taleban statement spelled it out: "This is our reply for the killing of women and children in Bajaur [near the Afghan border] by Pakistan army bombs."

Pakistan Taleban spokesman Maulvi Umar warned that if the military continued its campaign "we will launch bigger attacks in all major Pakistani cities".

Wah is close to the troubled North West Frontier Province (NWFP) which - along with the neighbouring Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) - continues to be at the centre of an insurgency led by pro-Taleban militants.

Security has deteriorated sharply in recent weeks in those regions, which the Afghan government and the US say are also a haven for al-Qaeda.

There is mounting pressure on Pakistan's government from the US to crack down on fighters using the lawless tribal regions to launch cross-border raids into Afghanistan to target coalition forces.

While many believe it would be a mistake to further antagonise the militants, others argue that any respite in the army offensive would allow them time to regroup.

Back to square one

Under President Pervez Musharraf - who resigned on Monday - the army used a series of military campaigns and peace deals to try to stem the violence.

These took place between 2002 and 2007, but met with little success.

The power of the militants has grown to such an extent that they have become a law unto themselves.

Pakistan's governing coalition, which came to power in February's elections, has promised to reverse this trend.

It has pledged a policy of diplomacy and negotiation to deal with the situation.

Amid scepticism from the West, the first phase was launched in the north-western Swat district, now home to a resurgent local Taleban militia.

Swat, which was once a scenic valley attracting major tourism, has been the scene of continuous battles since mid-2007.

The new government, offering the militants a ceasefire, was able to bring them to the negotiating table.

Supporters of the Pakistani Taleban
The militants enjoy some popular support in the north-west areas
A peace deal was hammered out in June 2008, and hailed by the government as a great success.

But, within a month, the deal fell through and the situation was back to square one.

The militants blamed the army, arguing that security forces had continued to carry out attacks against them despite the truce.

They also said the government had failed to honour part of the deal which called for the release of all arrested militants.

The already tense situation was aggravated by a rise in the number of cross-border air strikes by Nato forces in Afghanistan.

These mostly targeted the neighbouring Waziristan tribal region and were said to be aimed at "high value" al-Qaeda figures.

Some of these strikes - from the American point of view at least - met with success.

In July, Abu Khabab al-Masri - an Egyptian national described by US officials as al-Qaeda's leading chemical weapons expert - was killed in a missile strike.

Many lesser targets were also killed in the strikes.

Needless to say these attacks did not go down well in the tribal regions, which have been targeted ever since senior al-Qaeda figures were suspected of taking refuge there following the 9/11 attacks.

No easy exercise

By the end of July 2008, heavy clashes were taking place between security forces and the militants.

Dozens of people, a number of them civilians, have died in the fighting which still continues.

Grieving woman at the scene of the Wah bombing
The battle against militancy has resulted in much civilian suffering
Militants in Bajaur launched attacks against the military and crossed over to Swat to help in the fighting there, prompting the military to launch possibly its biggest offensive against the militants since 2002.

While continuing to battle the militias in Swat, hundreds of troops were moved into Bajaur as well.

Within the first days of the operation, the military claimed to have killed 300 militants and destroyed several bases.

But it will not be an easy exercise - Bajaur has a reputation as a haven for fiercely determined foreign fighters.

The head of the Taleban in the area, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, is known for keeping Arab and Uzbek bodyguards.

He is also reputed to have close ties to Arab al-Qaeda leaders, including the group's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In this context, the operation against militants in the region is the most pressing since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.

It remains to be seen whether a democratically elected coalition government can achieve what military ruler Pervez Musharraf - a key US ally in the "war on terror" - could not.

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