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As Pakistan's War on Terror Continues, a Look at the Landscape

In light of the devastating attack in Pakistan, here's a look at the country's political landscape, its relationship with the U.S. and its future.
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The massacre at a school in Peshawar represents the bloodiest attack ever by the Taliban in Pakistan, where the military and civilian leadership have long been at odds over how to deal with terrorism for years. Here's a look at the country's political landscape, its relationship with the United States, and the militants' future.

Who's in charge?

National security in Pakistan has always largely been under the purview of the powerful Army establishment, and the civilian government and military powers have often clashed on how to approach its domestic war on terror. Before the military launched a ground offensive in North Waziristan, the last bastion for much of the domestic militancy, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was pushing for peace talks with the Taliban, as have his opponents in the past. But shifting sands on the civilian side — including a barrage of challenges to the sitting, elected government from opposition parties — have kept much of the country's leadership occupied with maintaining stability, unable to devote political capital to formulating and gaining consensus for a cohesive national security strategy.

The scale and brutality of today's attack has left some wondering if the military and civilian leadership, who will all meet on Wednesday, will finally be brought together as a result.

Who is fighting and where?

Over the last decade, Pakistan's Army has been fighting an all-out war against the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) and like-minded militant groups, mostly in the northwest stretch of the country known as Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), which extends into the border region with Afghanistan. The region includes seven tribal agencies collectively called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The military has been moving region by region, in some cases moving out entire local populations before launching an offensive, and squeezing the militants into smaller spaces. Though they've experienced setbacks, like major attacks in urban hubs and military installations, they've also gained and held significant swathes of territory. North Waziristan, the last tribal agency in which the military launched an offensive, has long been the last bastion of the militancy and the site of more U.S. drone strikes than anywhere else in the world.

For years, the army's scope there was limited to their base headquarters and a small, surrounding area. This spring, they launched the ground offensive Zarb-e-Azb, or "Strike of the Prophet's Sword," to change that. The Taliban have said today's attack was in retaliation for that operation.

The U.S.-Pakistan alliance

Thanks to films like "Zero Dark Thirty" and shows like "Homeland," the curtain has been pulled back on the transactional and tenuous nature of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance. The 2011 U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden's compound sent relations into a tailspin, but sources from both countries have bemoaned inconsistent and unpredictable cooperation from each other on military and intelligence matters, even before the raid. In recent years, as the American draw-down in Afghanistan was underway, U.S. officials were careful to not interfere publicly as Pakistan pushed through the growing pains of its first democratic transition from one civilian government to the next.

General Raheel Shareef, Pakistan's Army chief, just completed his first trip to the U.S. earlier this month, marking a thaw in relations as the first chief to visit America since 2010.

What's next?

Experts point to the trend of attacks by the Taliban in recent months as indicative of the militants' waning strength. One former military official likened it an "aging tiger" swatting at easy prey. Since the Army launched its offensive in North Waziristan, the Taliban have mostly hit soft targets, unprotected by heavy military guard, including a checkpoint near the Wagah border crossing with India, far away from their logistical base of operations and supply lines. According to IntelCenter, a D.C.-based think tank that studies terrorism and other global threats, the Taliban didn't even rank in the top three groups worldwide in terms of number of incidents or attacks in 2014.

Analysts warn, however, that large-scale attacks, including a hours-long siege and gun battle at Pakistan's busiest airport, occurred only months ago, and the enormity of today's attack in Peshawar proves the capability and willingness of the militants to carry out plans with devastating consequences is still a very real threat.