ISLAMABAD Taliban insurgents are unleashing more suicide bombers on large crowds of civilians in an attempt to bomb Pakistanis into submission and discredit the military after major offensives against their strongholds.
Pakistan's al Qaeda-linked Taliban served notice of their plans on Friday when a militant in an explosives-laden SUV drove on to a volleyball field in a village in the northwest and blew himself up in the middle of a game, killing 90 people.
Such carnage will both terrorize civilians and raise new questions over the effectiveness of Pakistan's military, despite government assertions that a security offensive launched in October dealt a major blow to the Taliban.
The United States sees Pakistan as the critical front-line state its war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. It wants Pakistan's army to root out militants who cross the border to fight U.S. forces there.
But Pakistan's military would likely point to the volleyball game killings and similar attacks as clear proof that it must concentrate on threats from homegrown Taliban militants.
Some analysts argue that nuclear-armed Pakistan, and the region for that matter, can only be stable in the long term if the army hunts down all militant groups in the country, including those Afghan Taliban factions not fighting the Pakistani state.
"Given the fact that there is such a close nexus here between these various terror groups. These distinctions didn't pay off in the past," said International Crisis Group South Asia Director Samina Ahmed
"All that has happened is that the alliance relationships between these groups have now solidified and become far more dangerous."
But fighting all of the groups at once would mean giving up alliances with militants the Pakistani military wants as leverage in Afghanistan, especially if, as Pakistan anticipates, the United States pulls out before the country is stabilized.
And it could create new enemies for a military that's already stretched. Some 30,000 troops were used in an offensive against the Taliban in October in South Waziristan. The Taliban responded with bombings that killed hundreds of people.
"From the Pakistani point of view, are you capable of withstanding a much larger rebel Taliban force than the one that already exists? I have my doubts on that," said Kamran Bokhari, regional director for the Middle East and South Asia at STRATFOR global intelligence firm.
Powerful al Qaeda-linked warrior Sirajuddin Haqqani is possibly the best example of why the military averts its eyes from some groups on the U.S. military's hit list.
Entrenched in Pakistani border enclaves, his network has no interest in fighting the Pakistani state. He runs a large part of the insurgency battling U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
So he would be a very influential tool for Pakistan in Afghanistan when Western forces pull out.
"The relationship between Islamabad and Haqqani doesn't appear to be the classic patron-proxy where the proxy will do what the patron says and nothing else," said Bokhari.
"This guy is an independent operator. He does his own stuff as well. He is independent and he has got the relations with the Pakistanis."
Washington's embattled ally, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, is at odds with the military and could be embroiled in a new political crisis if his aides, including the defense and interior ministers, face prosecution over renewed corruption charges.
All of that uncertainty is likely to encourage the Taliban to press ahead with spectacular attacks on civilian targets to spread chaos and terror.
They have targeted civilians before. But analysts say the volleyball game attack -- one of the bloodiest in Pakistan in over two years -- indicates they will take bloodshed to new levels.
There is very little Pakistan's military can do to counter the new strategy.
"It's a huge challenge because you never have enough security to protect the innocent civilians. Particularly when you have determined suicide bombers," said Riffat Hussein, chairman of the department of defense and strategic studies at Quaid-e-Azam University.
"Clearly, they are declaring war against the civilian population."
(Editing by Nick Macfie)