ISLAMABAD — A multi-pronged assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in northwest Pakistan and a suicide bomb attack elsewhere in the area left some 50 people dead Monday, demonstrating extremists' continued ability to strike despite military operations against them.
The gun, rocket-propelled grenade and bomb onslaught on the American consulate in Peshawar, near the Afghan border, was the first direct attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in key ally Pakistan since 2006. Five people were killed, including two Pakistani guards, but the attackers didn't manage to get inside the building and no American personnel were reported injured.
The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the raid, which employed a familiar tactic of the militants and their allies, using vehicle-borne explosives to clear the way for a commando-style assault.
"Americans are our enemies. We carried out the attack on their consulate in Peshawar. We plan more such attacks," said Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban.
The terrorist violence in the northwest came as the Pakistani military signaled that it remains focused on the conventional threat from India to its east. Officials on Monday announced the largest military exercises in more than 20 years, all on the Indian border.
Together, the developments cast doubt on widely reported assessments by some Obama administration officials that stepped-up attacks by Pakistani troops and unmanned U.S. drone aircraft have seriously wounded Islamic militant groups and that Pakistan's arrests of some militants herald a "strategic shift" from the country's longtime preoccupation with India toward a focus on Islamic extremists.
Pakistan launched a series of military operations against homegrown Taliban last April, which continue and have won praise from Washington. Al Qaida and Afghan insurgents also used the areas that the Pakistani military targeted in the northwest as a haven.
However, the Pakistan army still appears to regard the insurgent threat as secondary to the perceived danger from India, with which Pakistan has fought three wars since the two countries achieved independence in 1947.
From Saturday until May 13, Pakistan will carry out field exercises close to the Indian border, involving some 20,000 troops at any one time, said Maj. Gen. Muzamil Hussain, the director general of military training. It's the biggest such maneuver since 1989.
"This exercise is in response to a conventional threat," Hussain told a news conference.
The exercises appear to be a response to India's new "cold start" military doctrine for war against Pakistan, which seeks to overcome lengthy mobilization times by making rapid thrusts into Pakistani territory.
"Weakness invites aggression. This is to show the other side that we're capable of hitting back. It is to deter war," said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the military's chief spokesman.
Pakistan's nightmare scenario is a two-front war in the east and west simultaneously, with India taking advantage of Pakistan's war against Islamic insurgents in the west to invade in the east.
Analysts said the exercises also contained a message for the West: Help reduce tensions with India, or Pakistan can't focus on the Taliban threat.
"The upshot is that, unless you, the West, help us solve our India problem, we can't help you with what you want us to do," said Moeed Yusuf, an expert on Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent research organization in Washington.
Monday's attacks in the northwest, however, suggested that the militants remain a threat despite the stepped-up Pakistani and U.S. attacks on them.
In Peshawar, the provincial capital of the North West Frontier Province, a hub for American aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan and an important intelligence-gathering point, a mushroom cloud rose above the heavily fortified U.S. consulate after two vehicles packed with explosives tried to breach its defenses.
The first vehicle, which carried a relatively small explosive payload, was meant to knock out the first line of defense. The second, packed with around 220 pounds of TNT, was supposed to get close to the consulate itself, senior police officer Shafqat Malik said.
Two attackers on foot wearing suicide vests were killed accidentally by the second blast, police said, and gun battles broke out in the streets around the consulate.
The consulate was attacked a few hours after a political rally was bombed in Dir district, also in the frontier province, which a military operation last year supposedly had cleared of Taliban guerrillas.
Supporters of the secular Awami National Party were the targets. A suicide bomber in the crowd detonated himself, killing at least 45 and wounding 70. The Pakistani Taliban denied carrying out the Dir blast, but such disclaimers appear to be aimed at sowing confusion.
"This is war. In a war, there will be casualties," senior provincial minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour said. "The operations have got 80 percent under control. For the remaining 20 percent, we'll have to keep struggling."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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