Pakistan has had a turbulent week. On Wednesday, it also became a tragic one. Four people were killed and more than 20 wounded in a suicide bombing in the southwest of the country, two days after the Pakistani Taliban called for attacks across the country. The group claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was to avenge the killing of their former spokesman in Afghanistan in August.
It arrived soon after a quick succession of developments in the decades-long story of how the Pakistani government and security apparatus interact with the Taliban, an extremist group that originated in the tribal areas straddling the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. An offshoot of the group, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), eventually established itself in Pakistan, where it combines the Taliban’s religious extremism with the notion that the government in Islamabad is an oppressor occupying tribal lands.
At the start of the week, Pakistan appointed a new army chief, Gen Asim Munir. His position puts him at the heart of Pakistan's complex and regionally significant approach to security and foreign policy. His appointment also marks a departure from the controversial period of government of former prime minister Imran Khan, who was ousted in April.
The day before Gen Munir’s tenure began, TTP ended a months-long ceasefire they had struck with the government, a move they say was down to Pakistan's army intensifying operations against them within Pakistan.
The fact that TTP carried out such a deadly attack so soon after the deal fell through shows how real a threat the group poses in Pakistan, one that puts ordinary citizens in danger on a daily basis. Many of the country's worst terrorist operations have been staged by the group. They are, for example, responsible for the deadliest attack Pakistan's history, when their militants stormed an army-run school in December 2014, killing 150, most of whom were students.
Many in Pakistan, perhaps understandably, will be calling for a swift and aggressive response in the face of such violence. And there is no doubt that the perpetrators of this terrible crime must be brought to justice swiftly. It is equally certain, however, that a new ceasefire deal of some kind, or a revival of the recently ended one, is the most effective way for the time being to reduce the likelihood of such attacks.
Pakistan’s policymakers, moreover, have much else with which to be preoccupied. Floods have devastated the country, killing more than 1,700 people. Many put the severe rainfall down to climate change. Poverty remains a major challenge, especially as global prices rise, particularly for food and energy. These catastrophes are far harder plan for and mitigate, and they can only be addressed fully if the country is at peace.
Deal or no deal, the TTP will continue to assert their absolutist position that questions the legitimacy of the Pakistani state. For Pakistan’s long-term survival, its dangerous ideology should not be allowed to fester, as it has for so long. But the recent existence of a ceasefire is proof that the group is willing to step back from rhetoric and negotiate.
Seizing any opportunity to go back to the negotiating table will be difficult to stomach, particularly after an attack as tragic as the one that took place on Wednesday. It does not help matters that the Afghan Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan last year has only emboldened the TTP. But as years of insurgency and counter-insurgency in Pakistan – let alone recent events in Afghanistan – have demonstrated, military solutions only go so far in containing the cycle of violence.