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PESHAWAR: Wracked by violence in the late 2000s, it appears as if a state of relative stability has been restored to the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But scratch the surface and the sense of normality quickly disappears in Peshawar and surrounding areas.

The outskirts of the city and surrounding areas are still in the grip of violence and militant activity. While the intensity is lower than in years past, denizens of the capital remain uneasy and suggest militant activity is once again bubbling up around them.

In the city itself, the infrastructure of jihad, pushed underground several years ago, is again making itself felt. From charity drives to surreptitious recruitment of fighters for Afghanistan to extolling the virtues of jihad, locals report that militant outfits, particularly of the pro-Pakistan variety, are quietly surfacing in the city again.

“The outskirts of Peshawar were never really cleared,” said Shams Mohmand, a local journalist. “Particularly at night, the Taliban are active. Michini, Mattani, Badaber, there are real problems.”

Mohmand added: “Peshawar is really encircled by militants. Mohmand, Khyber, Darra Adamkhel, people often don’t realise that Peshawar is pressed up against the tribal areas and the trouble spots there.”

A senior security official in the province admitted that problems remain. “To the north and west of the city, on the city’s edges there are still problems. You can’t really say things are normal.”

According to Saad Mohammad, a retired brigadier and director of the Forum for Area Studies in Peshawar, “There’s been a slight improvement from the worst days. But it’s only slight. From kidnappings to chanda collections to threats against barbers and CD shops to killing of lashkar leaders, there is all kinds of activity. And it’s not just Peshawar, it’s the entire Peshawar valley, the surrounding districts too.”

The jihad complex Following the military operations in 2009 in Swat and South Waziristan, the open presence of pro-jihad groups and militant outfits in Peshawar, especially those focused on Afghanistan and Kashmir, was frowned upon and the groups melted away. But in recent months, activity has picked up again.

“JuD banners are on University Road and near Customs House, asking for chanda and for animal skins and have phone numbers listed,” said a Peshawar-based social worker referring to the Jamaatud Dawa, considered the face of the Lashkar-i-Taiba.

“Jaish-i-Mohammad, LeT, JuD, these are active in the city again. Sometimes someone appears outside a mosque with a collection box asking for funds for jihad. Sometimes after Friday prayers, someone will stand up in a mosque and call for recruits for Afghanistan. They have books with pictures from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Gharaib. Then they disappear quickly,” the social worker added.

In the murky world of jihad and front groups operating in Pakistani cities, few details are known about the size and scale of the activities. But in Peshawar anecdotes do abound.

A local told of an episode involving a young man who was distributing the Jamaatud Dawa’s weekly newspaper Jarrar in the cantonment area of Peshawar. “Around Ramazan time he stopped coming. Then several weeks later a new boy turned up with copies of Jarrar,” the local said. “We asked him what happened to the other boy and he said that he had gone to Kunar to fight with a group of men and they had been attacked and injured.”

“There was another boy who used to clean cars (also in the cantonment area) and he also announced one day he was going to Afghanistan to fight. And then several weeks later, word came that he had been killed and in absentia funeral prayers were held for him.”

While a similar public presence of the TTP or other groups presently fighting the Pakistani state has not been reported in Peshawar recently, analysts suggest that the nexus between militants of various stripes means more oxygen for one group could help the others too.

According to Shamim Shahid, a veteran journalist, “The quiet can be broken any time. The networks still exist to which the militants have ties and they can resurface again. The madressahs and mosques and other centres of Jamaat-i-Islami, JUI-F and Ahl-i-Hadith are all intact and growing here.”

Containment strategy

As the last major city before the frontline of the war in Fata and Afghanistan, Peshawar’s fate is intrinsically linked to the broader strategy in the fight against militancy. And even from this city, all eyes are on North Waziristan.

“North Waziristan is the capital of the state of Fata. They project power from there. And what’s happening now is a de facto Fata-ification of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” according to a senior provincial politician.

Senior security officials now claim that the resources necessary for a military operation in North Waziristan are fully in place and all that is required is a decision to launch an operation. But ambivalence over when that decision will be taken continues.

A recently retired senior security official who was an integral part of the pushback against militants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata claimed that the problem is the strategy itself is flawed. “There is a strategy of containment, not of elimination,” the senior official said.

A senior official maintained that a North Waziristan military operation is contingent on creating the “right environment” – essentially, winning over certain militant groups to clear the way for the fight against others – and a “national consensus”.

But when asked how long a decision could acceptably be deferred from a military perspective, the same official was frank. “It has to be done now. They’ve beheaded our soldiers, they’ve attacked Kamra, they attack in Punjab and elsewhere. The time to do it is now.”

Saad Mohammad, the retired brigadier, had an explanation for why the operation isn’t taking place ‘now’: “I don’t think the army or the paramilitaries have the will to take them (the militants) on.”