ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — A key Pakistan Taliban commander was fatally shot Monday, and a top government official is saying Pakistan has reached a turning point in its dealings with the militants.
Unidentified gunmen on Monday opened fire on a car carrying Taliban commander Asmatullah Shaheen, killing him and several militants traveling with him.
According to Shaheen’s relatives, the ambush took place in the militant stronghold of North Waziristan. It was unclear who was behind the attack, but local officials blamed rival Taliban factions.
Interior Minister Choudhry Nisar Ali Kahn said the killing comes at a critical point in the government’s peace efforts with the militants. "God willing we will make this country a peaceful country, whatever it takes. But this is a defining moment -- and for this the whole nation should unite," he said.
Government efforts to negotiate a political end to the seven-year Taliban insurgency have stalled in the face of repeated militant attacks and military retaliation.
Analysts say that Shaheen’s killing is part of an intense fight for power within one of the tribes that form the leadership of the Tehreek-e-Taliban. The TTP is a loose network of Islamist militants who operate around the country.
The analysts also say constant insecurity in the country, ranging from deadly attacks in the southern city of Karachi -- which government officials admit is now 25% under Taliban influence -- to bombings in the north, is beginning to erode political support for the talks.
Mahmood Shah, a retired military brigadier familiar with the tribal regions, said support for a military solution is building. “Four-hundred and sixty people have been killed since the negotiations started, so over that, I think, generally these people are in, sort of, in favor of a military solution or operation.”
The military already has conducted retaliatory strikes against the Taliban after the militants attacked and killed a number of security force personnel.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had made a political settlement with Taliban militants a centerpiece of his election campaign.
Analyst Hassan Askari Rizvi said a number of political leaders have only supported the Taliban, however, out of a belief the militants cannot be touched by the government. “But when this cycle moves in the other direction and they feel that there is a credible action against Taliban, you will find that some of the groups that are supporting Taliban openly will be somewhat quiet.”
Shaheen was the Taliban's interim leader after a drone strike killed Taliban commander Hakimullah Mehsud in 2013. Shaheen later was replaced by the militants' current chief, Mullah Fazlullah.