Pakistan has seen a rise in terrorist attacks in various parts of the country since the capture of Kabul by the Taliban in August 2021. The military victory of the Afghan Taliban has emboldened militant elements within Pakistan to pursue their agenda. Attacks by the Islamic State – Khorasan (IS-K) in Peshawar and Quetta, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in major urban centres such as Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Lahore as well as attacks by Baloch militants in various parts of Balochistan and Lahore have caught Pakistan’s security apparatus unprepared.
According to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), 294 militant attacks were carried out in Pakistan in 2021 — a 56 percent increase over 2020. As we see, the upwards trend has continued into 2022. After a long hiatus, Peshawar saw a major attack on a Shia mosque in early March that killed 63 and injured close to 200 people. The attack was claimed by the IS-K. This was followed by the killing of seven paramilitary troops in Balochistan’s Sibbi by the IS-K. In addition, Peshawar, Islamabad and Lahore saw small-scale attacks targeting policemen, security forces and civilians this year, costing precious lives. A majority of these attacks have been carried out by TTP.
On the other hand, coordinated attacks by Baloch separatists took place in Panjgur and Naushki towns of Balochistan in February. Independent media does not have access to these areas, but official sources claim that the attacks resulted in the deaths of 12 soldiers and 20 attackers. Baloch militants claimed responsibility for the attacks. This came on the heels of an attack on the army check post in Gawadar that left 10 soldiers dead. Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) claimed responsibility for the Gawadar attack. These attacks have been followed by another one in Quetta, which killed three including a police officer and injured at least 25.
With the rise in terrorism within its borders, Pakistan’s initial satisfaction at the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and neutralization of the Indian influence on its western border seems to be fading away. Clearly, the military victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan has emboldened militants of all hues in Pakistan, be it the virulently anti-Shia IS-K, TTP or those belonging to the Baloch separatist movement. In January this year, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police chief Moazzam Jah Ansari called the IS-K a bigger threat to peace in the province than the TTP. According to him, IS-K’s hitmen were responsible for the recent spate of targeted killings of the police personnel in Peshawar. They also claimed responsibility for the targeted killings of a Sikh herbalist in September and a Christian priest in January in Peshawar.
It is well known that military operations in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas North and South Waziristan in 2014-15 forced TTP operatives to take refuge in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces. Their relationship with the Afghan Taliban, al Qaeda, and Daulat-e-Islamia Khorasan – the Afghanistan chapter of the Islamic State – helped them sustain during this time. They aided the Afghan Taliban in their push against the Afghan government and the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). In the meantime, the IS-K expanded its footprint in Afghanistan.
Balochistan has a long border with Afghanistan. Pakistan has always said that India uses the Afghan territory to train and fund Baloch militants to destabilise Pakistan and to sabotage the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). With the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, it was expected that India would lose its foothold in Afghanistan and its capacity to harm Pakistan through Balochistan would be neutralised. However, the reverse seems to have happened. Instead of decreasing, militant activities in Balochistan have seen an uptick, putting Chinese investments at risk.
Taking a cue from their Afghan brethren, the TTP is also trying to reassert its position in Pakistan. Even though its old network have been dismantled, it could still use it support bases within Pakistan to launch small-scale attacks in major urban centres, including Islamabad. On the other hand, IS-K has demonstrated its ability to carry out bloody attacks with relative ease.
According to the stated policy of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, the government opened negotiations with the TTP and announced a month-long ceasefire from 1 to 30 November 2021. The announcement divided political observers and the Pakistani people. Proponents of talks say that Pakistanis could not fight the insurgency through military means infinitely. Critics question the wisdom of negotiating with a group that is responsible for countless deaths of civilians and security personnel, including the massacre at the Army Public School in 2014.
The purported aim of the talks was to offer amnesty to militants in return for giving up arms. However, the demands put forward by the TTP for surrender included some that were completely unacceptable to the government. One of them was the reversal of the merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They also wanted the release of a certain number of TTP militant imprisoned in Pakistani jails and enforcement of their version of sharia. After the government’s refusal to accede, the TTP called off the negotiations and resumed its attacks.
The Afghan Taliban have assured Pakistan that they would not let Afghan soil to be used against Pakistan but they could not do much to stop these attacks except facilitate negotiations with the TTP. It is hard to control the movement of TTP operatives from across the border and stop them from using their support bases here in Pakistan. Moreover, they share an ideological view of establishing an Islamic order of governance and may not want to push their Pakistani counterparts too hard.
The PTI government does not have much leverage to negotiate with the TTP but the military is trying to convince militants behind the scenes to give up arms. Their numbers are small and could be integrated into society relatively easily. If they refuse, the military does not seem to be worried about their activities as their command and control structure has been destroyed and they do not have the capacity to carry out large-scale attacks like in the past. However, the threat of their regrouping and restructuring still exists. We will have to wait to see how negotiations with the militants pan out. It is as yet unclear how the military is planning to deal with IS-K.
The situation in Balochistan is a bit different. The military has dealt with Baloch militants with an iron fist. However, this has only controlled the situation for a little while. Voices against enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings of the Baloch are getting louder and have been joined by those of Pashtun nationalists. They have often highlighted the government’s duality of approach in dealing with those who force the hands of the state like the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan and those that are fighting for their rights peacefully. Lack of engagement with these people is likely to isolate them further where they could become pawns in the hands of foreign elements.
Unfortunately, the ascension of the Taliban in Afghanistan is not proving to be the boon that the government first thought it was. If anything, it has been a boon for all those that want to challenge the writ of the Pakistani state through military means. Pakistan must view its struggle against militancy in the context of broader regional and global developments and act against any possibility of the country’s descent into a civil war.