“No country will be allowed to provide sanctuaries and facilitation to terrorists, Pakistan reserves all right in that respect to safeguard its people.” — Pakistan’s National Security Committee (NSC)
The resurgence of terrorism in Pakistan raises alarm bells for the country’s national security. Recently, terrorists’ appearance in Swat, an attack on the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) in Bannu, and a blast in the capital have worsened the security situation in the country. The upsurge in terrorism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan has reminded everyone of the wave of terror that had engulfed Pakistan in the past. Terrorism, it must be noted, has had a long, bloody history in Pakistan; a decade of unbridled terrorism damaged the state, thousands were killed, and the country faced grave economic losses. Faced with what was once called an existential challenge, Pakistan achieved exceptional results in breaking the backs of terrorists, as evidenced by the successful military operations conducted by its military. That said, terrorism and militancy have not been rooted out, with the most violent outfit in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) staging a comeback recently.
In November 2022, TTP announced the end to the ceasefire with the Government of Pakistan and started engaging in violent activities. Its recent attacks pose a number of challenges to the country. A threat to national security is calculated by an adversary’s credibility and capability. With TTP having both, it certainly is a major threat to Pakistan.
In the past, Pakistan conducted several operations, from Operation Rah-e-Haq in Swat in 2009 to Operation Zarb-e-Azab against terror outfits, to include the TTP. The dastardly attack on students and faculty of the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar was a tipping point, resulting in the National Action Plan; Operation Zarb-e-Azab went to the next level. Pakistan was able to flush out TTP from its sanctuaries in the erstwhile Tribal Areas. However, from its safe havens in Afghanistan, TTP regrouped and reappeared along the Pak-Afghan International Border. Now, TTP is a strong organization having nexus with the BLA (Baloch Liberation Army), another group. The Afghan Taliban seem unwilling to pull the plug on it. Therefore, one should ask this question: How did terrorism come back into the country?
What Went Wrong?
Seemingly, TTP was boosted by the return into power of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan . After the regime change in Afghanistan, a 51% increase in terrorism was witnessed in Pakistan, with approximately 150 attacks in 2022. If there were illusions about the Afghan Taliban helping Pakistan eliminate the TTP threat as partially expressed by the-then Prime Minister Imran Khan “Broken shackles of slavery” remark, they dissipated quickly. The Afghan Taliban have been found wanting in dealing with TTP. In fact, they have, in some ways, facilitated the said group, According to a report, the Afghan Taliban released 600 TTP prisoners and provided safe havens to more than 6,000 TTP militants in Afghanistan.
In addition, the political turmoil in the country has created a policy vacuum which the group has exploited. Further, Pakistan, being reactive rather than proactive, announced talks with TTP in November 2021, and the latter took advantage of the ceasefire and managed to regroup. Pakistan should have been proactive in dismantling it. Furthermore, Pakistan’s anti-terrorism laws and overall structures are full of loopholes and lacunas.
Also, a major economic crisis, coupled with ever-increasing levels of polarization, has added to Pakistan’s woes. With foreign exchange reserves plummeting, Pakistan is staring at a sovereign default, something which will also affect its capacity to tackle with the menace of a rejuvenated TTP. At a time when consensus and coordination are needed, political instability and polarization among parties and federating units are not helping Pakistan’s cause. Now, BLA has operational linkages with TTP in Balochistan, which brings new sets of challenges to the table for Pakistan.
To begin with, Pakistan has to counter terrorism again. This time, however, the locals are exhausted. The Pakistan Army has had a huge influence over people, but this time it will be a challenge for the state to shore up support from the locals. The U.S. announced its support for Pakistan in its fight against terrorism despite not mentioning that country in its National Security Strategy 2022. Only time will tell whether or not the U.S. would lend meaningful support to Pakistan in its fight against TTP.
Further, the country is going through a major political stalemate, with political parties undermining each other on each occasion. The turmoil intensified after the ouster of ex-PM Imran Khan, and therefore political mistrust needs to be tackled. Also, in order to counter terrorism, Pakistan needs finances. Pakistan’s economy is all but in doldrums. Major operations, again, necessitate money, but Pakistan is afflicted by a paucity of resources.
Moreover, there are many terrorist groups operating within the country; TTP is mainly active in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and BLA’s presence is in Balochistan. The SRA(Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army) is also responsible for several attacks, including the one in Karachi. ISKP (Islamic State of Khorasan Province) is another militant group responsible for attack on the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul. The post-U.S. withdrawal Afghanistan poses an immense challenge for Pakistan. The TTP shares an ideological brotherhood with the Afghan Taliban, who now rule Afghanistan. It is difficult for Pakistan to take the TTP to task without the support of the Afghan Taliban given that the group is based in Afghanistan. Also, as aforementioned, structural, judicial, and legislative problems are hurting Pakistan. A lack of intelligence coordination is also a major issue in Pakistan’s counterterrorism effort.
The Way Forward
Pakistan needs to be offensive rather than defensive. In order to fully immobilize and dismantle the group, Pakistan needs to not only complete but also fully secure fencing of the Pak-Afghan International Border. Most importantly, all stakeholders should be on the same page; it is a national security concern. Polarization in a national cause is the last thing Pakistan needs. it is time for all institutions, including political stakeholders, to come forward before things get messier.
TTP and other terrorist groups are rather similar; some locals support all these organisations because they are capable of hiding and conducting terrorist activities. Under the current circumstances, where there is no trust in institutions, the state needs to regain locals’ trust and support. Integrity, trust, and stakeholders’ unity are critical to moving forward.
A comprehensive plan is needed in Pakistan to deal with militant activity and radicalization, which are the basic roots of terrorism. In the comprehensive plan, strong coordination between provincial and federal agencies and rejigging judicial processes should be important planks.
Pakistan also communicated to the Afghan Taliban that its stability is on the line as a result of TTP’s unchecked activities. Negotiations need to focus on the Afghan Taliban rather than the TTP, not least because they need to be pushed to act against the latter. A clear response from the Afghan Taliban can reduce the burden on Pakistan. The country’s border with Afghanistan is so sensitive that each week, cross-border firing occurs while other militants are present in the border area. Securing the western flank would be an absolute strategic win for Pakistan. A pragmatic response from the Afghan Taliban can assure peace and stability in the region.
Muneeb Muhammad is a graduate of the School of Integrated Social Sciences’ BS Social Science program.