ISLAMABAD – A double Taliban suicide attack that killed 66 paramilitary police recruits represented the deadliest terrorist strike in Pakistan since the killing of Osama bin Laden. It sent a strong signal that militants mean to fight on and to try to avenge the al-Qaida leader.
Friday's attack came as both the Pakistani and Afghan wings of the Taliban have been carrying out attacks to prove they remain a potent force and bolster their profiles in case peace talks prevail in Afghanistan.
U.S. and Afghan officials have said they hope the Afghan Taliban will use bin Laden's death as an opportunity to break their link with al-Qaida — an alliance the U.S. says must be severed if the insurgents want peace in Afghanistan. But Afghan officials and Pakistani experts say any severing of ties would not happen anytime soon, if at all.
"The Taliban want to prove that bin Laden's killing did not really affect them," said Rahimullah Yusafzai, a Taliban expert in the Pakistani city of Peshawar who has interviewed their reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.
"I don't think anybody is talking peace at this stage," Yusafzai said. "Everybody is wanting to score something on the ground. I think the spring fighting, the summer fighting will continue and it will be worse than last year."
In claiming responsibility for Friday's attack in northwest Pakistan, which also wounded about 120 people, the Taliban said it was avenging the May 2 death of bin Laden. It cited anger at Pakistan's military for failing to stop the unilateral U.S. raid on bin Laden's hideaway.
"The Pakistani army has failed to protect its land," Ahsanullah Ahsan, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, told The Associated Press in a phone call.
In their communications, militants often try to tap into popular sentiments in Pakistan, where anti-Americanism is often stronger than fears of Islamist militants. This is despite militant attacks over the last four years claiming the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians.
Before the Taliban claimed responsibility, Liaqat Ali Khan, a senior police official in Peshawar near where the attack occurred, said the primary suspects were militants fighting security forces in the nearby Mohmand tribal region. The Pakistani Taliban are a loose collection of insurgent groups, and some news reports later continued to cast doubt on the claim that Friday's attack was meant to avenge the killing of bin Laden.
In Afghanistan, where bin Laden's death has coincided with the beginning of the spring fighting season, the Taliban have launched a series of attacks including a two-day battle in the insurgents' stronghold of Kandahar in the south.
"Violence has increased because this is part of the peace process," said Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a top adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai who is active in efforts to reconcile with the Taliban. "When you get to the point where everybody wants to position themselves to get the benefit of a dialogue and discussion, then you naturally expect there will be a lot of efforts to strengthen positions."
Opinion is mixed on whether the Taliban will split with al-Qaida in hopes of reconciling with the Afghan government. The bond was largely built on a personal relationship between Mullah Omar and bin Laden. Now that the al-Qaida leader is dead, members of the Taliban's top leadership council might argue for distancing the group from the mostly Arab terrorist network, but there has been no concrete signs of that yet.
The goals of the two movements are not believed to be closely aligned. While al-Qaida is focused on worldwide jihad against the West and establishment of a religious superstate in the Muslim world, the Afghan Taliban have focused on their own country and have shown little to no interest in attacking targets outside Afghanistan. Yet the two movements have long expressed formal support to one another.
"I think there are factions within the Taliban that want to split with al-Qaida and I think they will be winning the argument," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences.
But breaking with al-Qaida would mean forgoing some explosives expertise and reliable funding channels in the Middle East.
Gen. David Richards, the head of Britain's military, has said that bin Laden's death had left some Afghan insurgents panicked about their ability to raise money. Links between al-Qaida and the Taliban were greater than previously known, he said.
Getting the Taliban to split with al-Qaida is just one of many barriers toward reaching a political resolution to the nearly decade-long war.
The U.S.-led coalition hopes to hold ground in southern Afghanistan gained as a result of the addition last year of an extra 30,000 American troops. The Taliban's goal remains undermining the Afghan government, discrediting its security forces and driving the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops and other foreign forces out of the country.
The Pakistanis, long accused of maintaining ties with militants, hold a key role in getting top Taliban leaders to negotiate. Yet their political clout with both Afghanistan and the U.S. has been tarnished — at least temporarily — by bin Laden's death on Pakistani soil.
U.S. officials argued that Pakistani officials were either incompetent or complicit in allowing bin Laden to hide in Pakistan for years in a house north of the capital, Islamabad. And Karzai didn't hesitate to repeat his refrain that the war against terrorists should be waged in Pakistan and not in Afghan cities and villages.
"The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan is not good right now," said Gen. Abdul Hadi Khalid, former Afghan deputy interior minister. "Now, Karzai will not trust Pakistan in the fight against terrorism or in helping Afghanistan with the reconciliation process."
Jafar Rasouli, a Kabul-based analyst on international affairs, said relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are at a low mark. "For six years they (Pakistani officials) have kept Osama bin Laden in that location and they kept lying to Afghanistan and the world," Rasouli said.
Pakistan officials claim they did not know that bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad.
Pakistan's military must tread a fine line when dealing with its domestic audience. While the public backs its operations against militant groups that stage attacks in Pakistan, many Pakistanis are sympathetic to the aims of insurgents in Afghanistan. They view the insurgents as a legitimate force resisting a foreign occupation.
While the U.S. accuses Pakistan of playing a double game — supporting and fighting militants — most Pakistanis avoid openly criticizing the powerful military establishment. That makes it difficult to ascertain their true sentiment about how the military is balancing its various alliances.
Associated Press Writers Riaz Khan in Shabqadar, Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Ishtiaq Mahsud in Dera Ismail Khan, and Heidi Vogt, Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.