ISLAMABAD – Suspected Islamic militants killed at least 160 people during the new Pakistani government's first month in office, fueling concern that the country's leaders lack a coherent strategy to fight the pervasive problem of violent extremism.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N party scored a resounding victory in national elections in May with a platform that promoted peace talks as the best way to quell a domestic Taliban insurgency that has killed thousands of people. The plan quickly fell apart after the Taliban withdrew their offer to talk in response to a U.S. drone strike that killed the group's deputy leader at the end of May.
The government has yet to articulate an alternate strategy, and in the meantime, the attacks keep coming.
"The government is completely confused over the terrorism problem," said Zahid Hussain, whose books plot the rise of militancy in Pakistan. "The government's indecisiveness and dithering has emboldened the militants."
At least 160 people were killed in suspected militant attacks in June, according to an Associated Press count. It was the second most deaths in a month this year, following April, when there were many attacks related to the election, said Mohammed Amir Rana, head of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies.
Hussain and other analysts said the government failed to respond aggressively enough to the attacks over the last month. The government mostly relied on routine press releases that criticized the violence and expressed sorrow for the dead, but made no mention of who carried them out or how they would respond.
The government has taken a few public steps to show it is dealing with the attacks, which included the killing of international tourists at a scenic mountain, a suicide bombing of women university students and an attack on a funeral that killed a lawmaker.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Quetta, the capital of southwest Baluchistan province, an area where minority Shiite Muslims have been repeatedly killed by radical Sunni extremists. He brought senior security officials with him, including the head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
"We will give full our attention to bring an end to the lawlessness, whether it is in Quetta and Baluchistan or other parts of the country," Sharif told reporters during his trip.
Last month, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan also traveled to Quetta following an attack there that left 24 people dead. Khan reiterated the country's support for talks with militants, although he did say that those who refuse to renounce violence will be dealt with "through other means."
Sharif has announced that he plans to hold a high-level meeting with political party leaders on July 12 to discuss a national strategy to curb militancy.
Analysts said Sharif's trip to Quetta was a good step, but it's the follow-through that matters. They warned that the government's attempts to form a consensus will likely founder. Islamist parties will likely blame the problem of militancy on CIA drone strikes and the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan, and no action will be taken, said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani army general and defense analyst.
"There's no point in them repeating the same thing that has been said that 'We will get everyone together and then formulate a policy.' The people have voted," he said. "That's fine if you want to take along as many political parties, but essentially the responsibility is yours."
Interior Ministry spokesman Omar Hameed Khan defended the government, saying officials were committed to coming up with a national security strategy within three or four months in consultation with all stakeholders, including the military.
To be fair, the government has had its hands full dealing with an issue that is arguably more important than militancy for most Pakistanis — fixing the country's crippling electricity shortages. That was the issue that propelled the new government to victory, even more so than its promise to negotiate an end to militant attacks, and failure to quickly turn the lights back on could translate into a short term for the new government.
The government has also negotiated a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and presented a new budget to parliament.
Critics say even with those other concerns, the government should take a stronger line on militancy.
"Even if they are devoted to other issues, terrorism is still the most serious issue because it undermines the credibility of the state and shatters the confidence of ordinary people in the capacity of the state to protect them," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani political analyst.
Neither Sharif nor the interior minister has gone to the troubled city of Peshawar in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on a similar security-related trip, although it, too, has been hard hit by bombings and shootings. Analysts say that is partly because the killing of Shiite Muslims in Baluchistan has become such a high-profile issue that it can't be ignored. But visiting Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is also fraught with more political risks since it's controlled by Sharif's rival, cricket star-turned-politician, Imran Khan.
Khan's party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, is even more vocal in its support for negotiations instead of military operations as a way to end terror attacks. While the federal government's stance over the last month has been defined mostly by silence on the militancy issue, PTI officials have consistently pushed their negotiations agenda in the face of repeated bombings in the province.
"There is no other way," said Shaukat Ali Yousafzai, a member of Khan's party who serves as provincial spokesman. "We have been fighting for the last 10 years against these people, and terrorism activities are increasing day by day."
Critics say promoting peace talks ignores the Pakistani Taliban's history of using such negotiations as a way to gain time to consolidate their strength. And they question whether the government should negotiate with a group of militants dedicated to overthrowing the Pakistani state and enforcing hard-line Islamic law.
Analysts say the Sharif government may be wary about launching a broad crackdown on militancy because it could trigger blowback in the ruling party's home province of Punjab, which has suffered relatively few attacks. It could also alienate Islamists among the party's supporters.
At the end of the day, the new government is likely finding that solving Pakistan's militancy problem is one of the most complicated challenges it faces.
"There is a hell of difference between being in government and sitting out and criticizing," said Mian Iftikhar Hussain. He should know. He's a member of the Awami National Party, which supported military operations against the militants and was voted out of office in May. He also lost his only son to Taliban gunmen.