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Pakistani Taliban build strength as the US prepares to pull out

Two organised mass jailbreaks of militants in Pakistan bodes ill for the fight against the Taliban

The second jailbreak in a year in Pakistan last week raises questions about the competency of the Pakistani authorities to guard the country's prisons. It also raises concerns about the growing hold and influence of the Pakistani Taliban in the nuclear armed country at a time when the US forces are poised to withdraw from neighbouring Afghanistan next year.

At least 30 militants belonging to Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and various banned sectarian outfits managed to escape when heavily armed Taliban fighters, including suicide bombers, attacked the central jail on July 31 in Dera Ismail Khan district of northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Militants carrying sophisticated weapons and firing mortar shells ultimately freed over 250 prisoners and killed more than a dozen people during the attack. Following the jailbreak, Interpol issued a global warning to increase the vigilance against attacks after a series of prison breaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan.

How did the Pakistani Taliban manage to achieve a second jailbreak? What have been the dynamics of the terrorist plot? In the Bannu jailbreak in which nearly 400 prisoners were freed last year, the attackers were reportedly helped by insiders in the security services. A subsequent inquiry revealed that there were far fewer guards with insufficient ammunition on duty than there should have been. Like the Bannu jail attack, the recent one on Dera Ismail Khan's central jail in the same province highlights the collusion of some elements within the prison's security system with Taliban fighters that allowed the attackers to free prisoners, including hardcore militants.

The episode of the storming of the jail reflects the enhanced capability of Taliban fighters to strike at the guarded building on one hand, and the incompetence and ill-preparedness of the security guards to face the raid. The incident raises fears about more attacks on the country's other prisons housing high-profile militants.

The militants who escaped from Dera Ismail Khan jail could be instrumental in launching attacks on targets inside Afghanistan. Last year, the militants who escaped from Bannu jail were reportedly involved in launching the Taliban's spring initiative in Afghanistan when militants attacked the diplomatic enclave in Kabul and tried to storm the Afghan parliament. Among the freed militants was Adnan Rashid, who was involved in the assassination attempt on former military dictator Pervez Musharraf.

The growing strength of the TTP along Pakistan's lawless border with Afghanistan continues to embarrass Washington in the run up to the Afghan war endgame. Currently the strongest militant group in the country's northwestern tribal areas, the TTP was formed in 2007. The group is believed to have a close association with the Afghan Taliban and an alliance with banned anti-Shia sectarian outfits.

TTP's growing operational capacity and reorganisation in border areas is likely to have implications for post-2014 Afghanistan. After the US withdrawal, a reorganised and strong TTP is likely to emerge as a threat to peace in Afghanistan. The group is likely to emerge as a grave threat to the US that wants to conclude the Afghan war on its own terms.

The TTP, which claimed responsibility for the jailbreak, also poses a challenge to the new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Soon after he came to power in the May 11 election, Mr Sharif stepped up efforts to hold peace talks with Pakistani Taliban. The TTP, however, withdrew its offer of peace talks with the Sharif government following the killing of the TTP's key commander Waliur Rehman in a US drone strike on May 29 and vowed to avenge his death against the Pakistani government.

The US is against any peace deal with the Pakistani Taliban because it believes that the TTP used peace agreements with Islamabad in 2011 to join hands with the Afghan Taliban in launching attacks against western forces. The US firmly believes that the TTP wants to overthrow the Pakistani government and impose its theocratic version of Islam, and ultimately threaten to undo the US plans in neighbouring Afghanistan. The US believes that the TTP has been responsible for major attacks on US and Afghan targets inside Afghanistan. Washington's drone war in the country's tribal areas is mainly aimed at weakening the strike capability of the TTP.

How will the Sharif government tackle the TTP, which has become the gravest security risk? On June 23, Pakistani Taliban killed 10 foreign tourists at a base camp of Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world, in the country's north. The TTP has also been responsible for launching devastating attacks on Pakistan's military and civilian targets across the country, killing over 5,000 security personnel and over 45,000 civilians.

As the government had already received an intelligence warning about the recent jailbreak, it was not an intelligence failure. It was simply a tactical failure. The security personnel guarding the prison were not well-trained, well-equipped and armed to thwart a raid by the organised, heavily armed and trained militants. Investments should be made in making the law-enforcers trained and prepared to tackle such jailbreak ventures by militant groups.

No lesson was learnt from last year's Bannu jail raid and the country is likely to witness more similar attacks.


Syed Fazl-e-Haider ( www.syedfazlehaider.com ) is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of many books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan