ISLAMABAD — Protests erupted around Pakistan against a horrific church bombing that left dozens of dead and wounded Sunday, the worst attack against Christians the country has ever seen. Analysts worry the government is losing control over the country's security.
Shock and anger rippled through the country after a faction of the Pakistani Taliban bombed a Christian church, killing more than 80 worshipers and wounding more than 100 others Sunday in the country’s northwest city of Peshawar. Protesters took to the streets, demanding the government do more to protect its minorities.
The double suicide bombing occurred less than a week after the Taliban killed one of the army’s top commanders, General Sanaullah Khan and two other soldiers with a roadside bomb, a rare attack on the top ranks of military power.
Speaking in London, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said the latest attack threatened to put an end to proposed talks with the Taliban to negotiate an end to the violence in Pakistan.
"The government had started a process of talks in good faith, all political parties sat down and decided to talk, and there was no harm in starting such a process in good faith, but, sadly, the government now can no longer move ahead," said Sharif.
But Pakistan's Human Rights Commission lashed out at the government's inadequate response. The aim of the attack, the commission said in a statement, was to destabilize the state. As such, Pakistan could not afford its response to be "any less unequivocal."
Analyst Megha Kumar of the British-based Oxford Analytica group says the security situation in Pakistan is fragile.
“The civilian administration is most certainly and unequivocally stretched in key areas of domestic security," said Kumar.
Beyond promoting talks, Sharif’s government, voted into power in May, has yet to formulate a coherent and cohesive national security policy for the country.
Retired General Talat Masood, now a security analyst, says this could lead to more violence.
"There will be a phase in which perhaps the militants will continue to sort of expand their space, because ultimately nobody sees that there would be any future if the Pakistan government only thinks in terms of talking to these militants, who have an agenda of establishing their own constitution," said Masood.
Pakistan Taliban have strongholds in parts of the northwest bordering Afghanistan, while Taliban factions operate in eastern Punjab province.
Masood notes separatists control pockets of southwest Baluchistan province, and extremists and politically-influenced criminals have turned sections of the southern city of Karachi into virtual no-go zones.
“We have many areas in Pakistan where the government has lost its control and various both criminal as well as militant organizations are virtually in control," he said.
Analysts agree Islamabad has little it can concede to the Pakistan Taliban. The militants have demanded the military move out of the tribal northwest, an end to drone strikes in the region, the release of more than 4,000 Taliban prisoners, and Sharia law, options neither the government nor the military will likely agree to.
But taking on the Pakistan Taliban in its strongholds in the northwest is difficult. It is unclear how the Taliban and its affiliated groups would retaliate against any such operation and if the Pakistani public is willing to pay the price.
The pressure on Sharif's government to take action is expected to increase further as international forces leave neighboring Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The strong liklihood the Afghan Taliban will have greater power there could further embolden the Pakistan Taliban.
There is also agreement among international observers and analysts that it would be crucial for the government to set out a clear policy before Pakistan’s long-serving army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, steps down in November and a new army chief is appointed.