Last week’s suicide attack on a mosque in a tightly guarded area in Pakistan’s Peshawar — which included a police headquarters, in addition to intelligence and counterterrorism bureaus — left more than 100 dead and many others injured, making it one of the deadliest attacks in the country in years. While the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) group, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, distanced themselves from the Jan. 31 attack, one of its hardline factions, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, claimed responsibility for it, calling it revenge for the killing of its leader, Omar Khalid Khorasani, who died in a roadside bomb last year in Afghanistan. Irrespective of who was behind it, the attack has brought into sharp focus the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Pakistan’s northwestern areas near the border with Afghanistan.
Pakistan is no stranger to terrorism in pursuit of its regional interests, whether as a victim or a perpetrator. In both roles, the country has paid a heavy reputational, political, economic and diplomatic cost. Besides losing around 83,000 human lives, it has incurred whopping financial losses to the tune of $150 billion over the last two decades, due to widespread lawlessness and the precarious security situation emanating from terrorist attacks. Though Pakistan made progress against the multifaceted extremist threat between 2015 and 2020, terrorism has persisted and mutated into new forms. The country’s hostile neighborhood, the decreased reliability of its services, its restive peripheries seething with political alienation and its growing socioeconomic grievances have provided terrorists with a ripe environment. Their recruitment drives and propaganda dissemination find a receptive audience, because the worsening environment appears to legitimize their violence.
The recent attack is a cruel reminder of terrorism’s resurgence amid growing political uncertainty and the economic meltdown in Pakistan. The revival of terrorism has resulted in regular attacks, particularly in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, raising serious questions about Pakistan’s ability to effectively tackle this menace. At the same time, the recent spate of militant violence points to a new phase of asymmetric conflict in Pakistan, placing its counterterrorism campaign at a crossroads. The nation needs to identify the underlying reasons for the current phase of conflict and how it differs from former episodes of terrorism.
Pakistan’s militant landscape is diverse and complex. Terrorist groups of various hues have simultaneously coexisted and competed with each other. Over the years, these groups have merged, splintered, re-merged and re-splintered, underscoring the ever-evolving nature of Pakistan’s threat landscape. For instance, until 2020, various factions of the TTP, which is an ideological twin of the Afghan Taliban, were divided by leadership disputes, ideological conflicts, ethnic and tribal feuds and organizational differences. However, they began coalescing in the middle of 2020, before the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. The current spate of terrorist violence in Pakistan has been another result of the evolution in the militants’ landscape, where splintering and factionalism have given way to mergers and alliances.
The TTP changed its ideological narrative ahead of the U.S. exit from Afghanistan in August 2021 to justify its militant campaign in Pakistan. It refashioned itself from a group formed in reaction to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s counterterrorism alliance with the U.S. Its purpose now is to articulate Pashtun ethnic grievances. Furthermore, it is now distancing itself from Al Qaeda’s global jihadist rhetoric and reiterating its Pakistan-centric focus of bringing about a Taliban-like Shariah system in the country. It is critical to consider this reorientation while discussing the resurgence of militant violence in Pakistan.
The foremost factor that has placed Pakistan’s struggle against terrorism at an inflection point is its myopic Afghan policy. In a way, Pakistan’s contradictions in Afghanistan have come full circle, so that now the “chickens are coming home to roost.” The country’s powerful military establishment supported the Afghan Taliban, particularly the Haqqani Network, to undercut India’s influence in Afghanistan and install a Pakistan-friendly regime in Kabul after the U.S. withdrawal. To achieve these goals, Pakistan provided sanctuary as well as logistical, financial and medical assistance to Taliban insurgents, and midwifed the 2020 Doha Agreement between Washington and the Taliban.
In return, Islamabad hoped the Taliban regime would use its influence over the TTP to stop its cross-border attacks in Pakistan, ignoring that both groups fought and bled together on the battlefield to force the U.S. out of Afghanistan. Pakistan also overlooked the longstanding ethnic, political, tribal and ideological links between the Taliban and the TTP.
More importantly, the TTP sheltered the fleeing Taliban remnants from Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001 in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2018. After assuming power, the Taliban regime is returning that favor by sheltering the TTP in Afghanistan. Rather than curtailing the TTP’s activities, as required under the Doha Agreement, the Taliban freed thousands of TTP prisoners from Bagram and Pul-e-Charkhi prisons, which increased the latter’s operational and organizational strength.
The Taliban consider the TTP-Pakistan conflict to be an internal Pakistani affair, only offering help with mediation if and when both parties express interest in negotiations. Interestingly, the Taliban officially deny the TTP’s presence on Afghan soil and reject Pakistan’s objections that, in violation of the Doha Agreement, the TTP in Afghanistan is being used for terrorism. The Taliban also reject Pakistan’s position that top TTP leaders were already present in Afghanistan during the Pakistan-TTP peace talks in the early part of 2022. The Taliban maintain that the leaders traveled to Kabul from Pakistan for peace talks. In sum, the Taliban’s return to power has had a rejuvenating impact on the TTP and provided it greater operational freedom to launch attacks in Pakistan with impunity. Since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, terrorism has increased in Pakistan by 52%, the majority of these attacks being perpetrated by the TTP.
Ironically, while Pakistan supported the Taliban’s return to power to gain so-called strategic depth against India in Afghanistan, the result has instead been to provide the TTP with strategic depth against the Pakistani government. Furthermore, instead of disengaging from India or curtailing India’s influence in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime has adopted a bipartisan approach of forging good neighborly ties with all countries in the region. To Pakistan’s dismay, the Afghan Taliban defense minister, Mullah Yaqoob, expressed a desire to send cadets to India for military training.
As an organization, the TTP has evolved tremendously since its ouster from the former strongholds of the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas between 2015 and 2020. During this period, the TTP learned a great deal, as noted by the incumbent chief Nur Wali Mehsud in his voluminous book, “Inqilab-e-Mehsud” (“Mehsud’s Revolution”). After assuming leadership in 2018, following the killing of his predecessor Mullah Fazlullah, Mehsud focused on two things: organizational discipline and unification of the group’s various splinter factions. To achieve the first objective, he introduced the TTP’s first-ever code of conduct, detailing the so-called rules of business.
For the second goal, he held a series of meetings with the militant commanders of the alienated groups and persuaded them to rejoin the parent outfit. As a result, 22 Pakistani militant factions have rejoined the TTP since 2020, which has increased the group’s operational and numerical strength. Alliances and mergers augment terrorist groups’ operational and organizational prowess. Furthermore, the coalitions, particularly among ideologically similar outfits, add to their resilience. The more allied a terrorist group is, the more dangerous and lethal it becomes. Due to factional mergers and the jailbreaks in Afghanistan by the Taliban, the TTP’s numerical strength has increased to 8,000–10,000, enabling it to increase terror attacks in Pakistan as well as expand its geographical reach from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to Balochistan as well.
The TTP’s increasing focus on Balochistan, where the strategic China-Pakistan Economic Corridor lies, is both interesting and instructive. Of the 22 militant factions that have pledged allegiance to the TTP, two — the Aslam Baloch and Mazar Baloch factions — are from Balochistan. After canceling the June ceasefire with Pakistan in November, the TTP’s first suicide attack (targeting the police who were guarding a polio vaccination team) was in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. Recently, the TTP has also rearranged its organizational structure along the lines of the Taliban’s insurgent model. Under this new structure, it has divided Pakistan into northern and southern zones and seven provinces, also known as “wilayats.” The structure includes seven ministries and military and intelligence commissions. The TTP is also using its sanctuaries in Afghanistan and its footholds in the ex–Federally Administered Tribal Areas as a force-multiplier to expand the scope of its operation to Pakistan’s urban areas. In recent months, the TTP has materialized in cells and sleeper networks in urban areas such as Karachi and Quetta, as well as surfacing (sparsely) in parts of Punjab.
The Afghan Taliban had offered mediation with Pakistan to settle the dispute over the TTP, which Pakistan accepted, hoping it might compel the TTP to show some flexibility. The peace talks were held on three levels: political, military and tribal. Various delegations from political parties, from the military, and tribal elders from the ex–Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Malakand Division negotiated with the TTP’s leadership in Afghanistan. However, beyond two short-lived ceasefires, the talks made no major headway.
For a peace deal, the TTP demanded the reversal of the merger of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the implementation of a Taliban-like Shariah system in the region, repatriation of the militants and their families who were dislocated to Afghanistan due to military operations, the release of all its prisoners and the removal of cases against them, as well as financial compensation.
For its part, Pakistan wanted the TTP — if peace talks succeeded — to disarm and disband its organizational structure, to respect Pakistan’s constitution (which the TTP considers un-Islamic) and to live like normal citizens. In return for dissolving its organization, Pakistan offered to allow the TTP to operate as a political party and even suggested some ideas for names. However, Pakistan and the TTP could not reconcile their differences.
The flawed notion that reconciliation through peace talks is possible has also contributed to terrorism’s resurgence in Pakistan. The report that the National Counterterrorism Authority (Pakistan’s premier counterterrorism agency) presented to parliament in December reached the same conclusion. Moreover, by talking to the TTP, Pakistan threw away two important advantages.
First, by sitting across the table from the TTP at the Taliban regime’s prodding, Pakistan accepted the terrorist group as a stakeholder. This left the discursive space open for the TTP to expand its political and ideological influence in Pakistan. The group now frequently comments on all key political and economic developments, as well as natural disasters and calamities in Pakistan. In doing so, it tries to further its ideological and political agendas with a view to recruiting disenchanted and alienated youth. The group has a strong social media presence as well, whereby it shares its audio and video statements, infographics and its propaganda magazine, “Mujallah Taliban,” as well as documentaries and written statements.
Second, Pakistan compromised the hard-earned national consensus enshrined in the 20-point National Action Plan (NAP), which is essentially a roadmap for fighting extremism and terrorism that was drawn up after the 2014 Peshawar school massacre, when six gunmen killed 149 people, including 132 school children. One of the NAP’s salient points was not to talk to terrorist groups and to eliminate all forms of terrorism indiscriminately. By talking to the TTP, the national consensus against terrorism was undermined.
Furthermore, all peace talks with the TTP have failed. The two short-lived ceasefires — the one-month truce in 2021 and the five-month armistice in 2022 — were no exceptions. As with previous peace talks, the TTP used these two ceasefires to buy time, reorganize and regroup itself. The resettlement of a few hundred militants in Swat allowed the group to infiltrate and expand its reach in Pakistan. The resettled militants later took up arms, despite agreeing not to engage in violence and to live peacefully.
Pakistan’s complacent counterterrorism is equally responsible for this resurgence. After downgrading the TTP during the 2015–2020 period, Pakistan confused the absence of violence with peace and instilled a false sense of security. As terrorist attacks vanished, Pakistan lowered its counterterrorism guard, leaving enough gaps in the system for the TTP to exploit. At the same time, Pakistan only focused on the active aspects of counterterrorism, taking no substantial steps to weaken the TTP’s ideological narrative. A report published in Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English daily, underscored that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) is under-resourced, ill equipped and poorly trained.
Since terrorism’s revival, the police in the province have borne the brunt of the terror attacks. Around 120 police personnel have lost their lives in 80 assaults in various parts of the province. Yet the budget of its CTD is just 2.18 billion rupees ($7.9 million), less than half of the Punjab CTD’s budget of 4.7 billion rupees ($17 million). This is despite Punjab witnessing only five terror attacks in 2022, resulting in six deaths, compared to 704 incidents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which killed 305. Of the 2.18 billion rupees, 96% is spent on salaries and allowances, with no funds earmarked for the procurement of weapons, bulletproof jackets and other counterterrorism-related equipment.
Moreover, Pakistan’s current polarized political environment and the poor state of its economy have hindered national efforts to renew the resolve to fight terrorism unequivocally in line with the military establishment’s rhetoric about uprooting terrorism in Pakistan.
In countries like Pakistan, terrorism waxes and wanes, yet it persists and keeps mutating into more complex forms. Therefore, instead of approaching terrorism from the standpoint of defeating it, the more nuanced approach would be to weaken its ideological appeal to achieve political goals. In this respect, Pakistan’s terrorism woes are also linked to its identity crisis. As long as the jury is out on whether Pakistan was created as an Islamic state — that is, whether it is a theocracy or a moderate Muslim state — various militant movements, such as the TTP, will continue their violent struggle to redefine the country’s national character in line with their extremist frameworks.
To reduce the appeal of extremist ideologies, Pakistan needs to come up with robust counternarratives; that is, it must fight one idea with a better, stronger idea. With this sort of strategic communication, however, the efficacy of counternarratives is only as good as the credibility of the messenger. The Pakistani state will also have to improve the reliability of its services if it wants its counternarratives against extremist ideologies to work. In the absence of good governance, counternarratives are little more than hot air. Finally, Pakistan will need to address the genuine grievances of its peripheral communities if it wants to deprive terrorist groups of openings in society to further their agendas.
Despite its ebbs and flows, terrorism has persisted in Pakistan, and it is unlikely to vanish anytime soon. Reducing terrorism’s appeal to achieve political and ideological goals would require a generational struggle under a holistic state-and-society approach.
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