Monday's terrorist attack on a court complex in the heart of Islamabad came as a profound shock, given that this is a highly fortified city where bombings simply do not happen. Eleven people were killed and dozens wounded by two suicide bombers. No one claimed responsibility for the attack but it is thought to be the work of a faction of the Pakistani Taliban or TTP, as they are known in Pakistan.
The shock of the attack was compounded by the fact that the Pakistani Government had only the day before agreed to a TTP ceasefire in order to give the stalled peace process another chance.
In early February the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif initiated a dialogue with the TTP with the hope of ending an insurgency which has claimed the lives of almost 50,000 civilians since 2001. Even with the support of all mainstream political parties, these talks were never going to be easy. No one I spoke to in Pakistan seriously believed they would succeed.
The TTP, a motley group of some70 different factions divided by tribal affiliation, tactics and approach to talks, insists that the constitution must be scrapped, Sharia law must become the law of the land throughout Pakistan, and all military ties with the US must end immediately.
The Government, on the other hand, is adamant that negotiations must take place within the framework of the constitution. As for breaking links with the US, even with all the difficulties in that relationship, this too is not about to happen soon.
Given these unbridgeable differences, it came as no surprise that the talks broke down after the first session. Read More
The breakdown was accelerated when, within days of the opening of talks in mid-February, the TTP executed 23 Pakistani soldiers it had been holding since 2010, confirming that the TTP is far from united on how to approach the talks.
The Government's response was air strikes against TTP positions mainly in North Waziristan, the TTP's last stronghold in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. The military also used air strikes in 2010 to degrade the enemy's capabilities before launching a major ground operation in South Waziristan.
Accordingly, there is widespread expectation that the military will soon launch a military offensive into North Waziristan following Monday's attack in Islamabad.
The Government has few other options. Were it not to retaliate for the latest terrorist attack, it would effectively allow the TTP to set the agenda, undermining the Government's credibility and commitment in fighting the militants. More importantly, it would upset the military, which has lost more men fighting the TTP than all Coalition fatalities in Afghanistan since 2001.
The Government should now carry out its military option ruthlessly and relentlessly. Any delay or half measure would simply give the TTP and its ideological fellow travelers time to either prepare for battle or, more likely, flee North Waziristan for the mountains of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, given the thinning of the Coalition presence in eastern Afghanistan in the lead-up to final departure in December, there will be no 'anvil' to the Pakistani army's 'hammer' to stop the TTP when it escapes across the border. So TTP fighters will most likely seep back into the tribal areas once the military operation is over. Many suspect large numbers of fighters have already fled across the border.
The bigger strategic question is: what would such an operation mean for the Government's relationship with 'good' Taliban factions which have not targeted Pakistan Government forces in the past (such as the Haqqani Network, the nastiest of the Afghan Taliban)?
According to Sartaj Aziz, the national security adviser to Prime Minister Sharif, who was in Washington a few weeks ago, a military operation in North Waziristan and elsewhere in the tribal areas would go after all militants. This was reiterated by the new Pakistani ambassador to the US, Jalil Abbas Jilani, during an address he gave in Washington last week.
Needless to say, this would be music to the ears of the Obama Administration, which has for years asked the Pakistanis to go after Haqqani Network fighters hiding in the mountains of North Waziristan. But the Pakistanis have consistently refused to oblige, arguing it would create more trouble for Pakistan down the road.
If it is indeed true that the Pakistani Government will no longer differentiate between 'good' and 'bad' terrorists, this would be a substantial policy shift from the previous government's position. Perhaps the Government and the military have finally come to the realisation that supporting the Taliban and all like-minded terrorists was not such a good idea after all — the blowback of 50,000 dead Pakistanis civilians should confirm this clearly.
Of course, if there is a serious and sustained military operation against the TTP and other al Qaida-friendly militants, Islamabad can expect massive and indiscriminate retaliation.
Nevertheless, the Government is on safe policy ground. The people of Pakistan have repeatedly indicated that these attacks on civilians must stop. They have also made clear that the Taliban's medieval version of Islam has no place in Pakistani society. The latest attack in the heart of Islamabad should put the final nail into the negotiation coffin so that it can be buried once and for all. Anything else would be a disaster for Pakistan and the region.
Photo by REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra.