Since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan around one-and-half years back, hundreds of terrorist attacks have taken place in Pakistan. Yet it was the January 2023 Peshawar attack, which claimed over a 100 lives, that shook the nation to its core. Citizens of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) took to the streets, demanding the government take stern measures to control this wave of terrorism. Weeks later, in Karachi, the Taliban attacked the Police Headquarters, which was recaptured after pitched battles with militants. This presents a dire picture of the security situation in the country.
As per the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), 294 militant attacks were carried out in Pakistan in 2021 while the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) annual report released in the last week of December 2022, stated that 376 terror attacks took place in 2022 that resulted in an increased number of casualties in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. It added that banned terror outfits such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for a majority of these attacks while KP experienced an “exponential rise in violence” where the number of deaths remained high.
The Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fasaad operations in 2013 and 2017 respectively helped improve the security situation tremendously. Security improved to a level that Pakistan was ranked the world’s top adventure tourism destination by the British Backpacker Society in 2018. A year later, the United Nations also restored Islamabad’s status as a family station for its staff in June 2019, followed by several diplomatic missions.
However, after the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in 2021, all sorts of militants were emboldened and Pakistan faced hundreds of terrorist attacks. Instead of taking this threat seriously, then Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Director General, Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed negotiated with the Taliban without taking parliament into confidence. In September 2021, the PTI government allowed him to visit Kabul unannounced to conduct talks with the Afghan Taliban while they were consolidating their control over Afghanistan after the US withdrawal. A foreign journalist managed to question him about his visit in the hotel lobby, to which he confidently said, “Don’t worry, everything will be okay.” Regardless of whether things improved in Afghanistan, they became worse in Pakistan as the country was soon hit by a wave of terrorism.
Two months after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, then Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa and DG ISI Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed briefed members of the Senate and the National Assembly on matters regarding national security, foreign affairs, as well as internal and external challenges faced by the county. Instead of improving, the security situation has gone from bad to worse since then.
Following the Peshawar attack this year, in February a senior Pakistani delegation visited Kabul for talks with the Taliban officials, days after the closure of their busiest border crossing raised tensions between the two countries. Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif was joined by other top officials, including Director General of ISI Lieutenant General Nadeem Anjum, in his meeting with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Afghanistan’s acting deputy prime minister for economic affairs.
Allegedly, the delegation found out that Faiz Hameed promised the Taliban that Pakistan would release TTP workers who were imprisoned in its jails and also forgive sentences of TTP militants while keeping the Pakistani government in the dark. The PTI government honoured these promises.
Pakistani officials claim that the TTP launches attacks on their country from their bases in Afghanistan. The Taliban have denied those accusations, asking why TTP would only attack places in Pakistan and not in other neighbouring countries. They also asked that why Pakistan blames only Afghanistan for terrorist activities on its soil and no other neighbouring states. They claimed that terrorism is Pakistan’s internal matter, contrary to Pakistan’s position that TTP is based in Afghanistan.
The people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province have largely borne the brunt of terrorist attacks and the war on terror in the past. They have been witnessing increased visibility of militant outfits in their areas recently and took to the streets in the first week of February, asking the government to take stern action against terrorists.
The participants were carrying white flags, demanding justice for the victims of the Peshawar blast on January 30 and peace in the province. From the protests, it appears that the citizens are far more aware of the threat that terrorists pose now, as compared to back in the 2000s.
Pashtun Tahafuz Movement leader Manzoor Pashteen led the main rally while another rally was led by Awami National Party’s provincial general secretary Sardar Hussain Babak. Pashteen also tweeted that the heart of Pakhtunkhwa spoke loudly that they did not want any more wars or targeted killings. “We will not accept wars and colonial policies.”
In the wake of the Peshawar attack, an Apex Committee meeting was called in Peshawar on 3 February 2023 where Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif expressed “unflinching resolve to protect the people of the country at any cost.” Those who are involved in attacking innocent citizens will be brought to justice, said the premier, adding that they would not allow anti-terror gains to be reversed. This was followed by a meeting of the Central Apex Committee three weeks later in Islamabad.
Although the government is making all efforts to contain the menace of terrorism, it still poses a credible threat to political activity in the country.
At the meeting, the civil and military leadership held the banned TTP responsible for the Peshawar carnage and decided to discuss this matter with the interim Afghan government, saying Pakistan would no longer tolerate cross-border terrorism. Addressing the Apex Committee meeting, Army Chief General Asim Munir said that the army would act according to the direction of the civilian government in the fight against terrorism.
The meeting also decided to construct a Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) headquarters in KP, in addition to a modern forensic laboratory. Moreover, a Safe City Project would also be launched in various cities of the province while modernising police equipment, and improving police training and efficiency. The body also agreed that the federal and provincial governments would adopt a uniform strategy to root out terrorism.
Discussing the matter of border management control and the immigration system, the meeting considered the steps to be taken against terrorists regarding their investigation, prosecution, and punishment.
The meeting urged religious scholars and the community to use their forums to eradicate terrorism and create awareness among the public that such acts are not permissible in Islam.
The Central Apex Committee also deliberated on the media’s role, particularly social media, during terrorist incidents and operations of security forces. It was recommended to take guidance from the experience of other countries so the appropriate procedures can be formulated to prevent rumours, misleading information, or spreading fear in emergency situations.
The government has since given a nod to the establishment of a National Counter-Terrorism Department, which would operate under the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA). It will soon carry out other decisions taken at the Apex Committee meetings. Terrorism is menacing, but cannot stand in the way of the country’s resolve to root it out.
Although the government is making all efforts to contain the menace of terrorism, it still poses a credible threat to political activity in the country. With Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa elections scheduled in the coming months, we must consider whether holding elections in such an atmosphere would be worth the exercise.
The writer is a former member of Punjab Assembly and also served as provincial minister of Punjab for youth affairs and sports.