Pakistan is facing a new wave of terrorism. There have been at least a dozen major incidents of terrorism resulting in the deaths of dozens during the ongoing year. In addition, there have been dozens of small terrorist attacks. More worryingly, the attacks on military targets have undergone a sudden spike resulting in the deaths of dozens of soldiers.
While the provinces of Punjab and Sindh are relatively safer, terrorist attacks are occurring more frequently in the northwestern provinces bordering Afghanistan – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
The steady spike in the incidents of terrorism is a worrying trend for a country that claims to have won the war against terrorism. After a long series of kinetic military operations in large parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and targeted operations in the rest of the country, Pakistani security forces were able to clean the country of terrorist elements – most of whom were either killed or fled to Afghanistan, wherein Afghan Taliban were waging an insurgency against the US-led coalition.
The claim to success comes after rendering tremendous sacrifices – nearly 80,000 civilians and 15,000 security forces – during the past two decades. The terrorist network in Pakistan was effectively broken and the masses could breathe in a peaceful environment without the fear of suicide attacks.
Pakistani civilian Shafqat Cheema
Shafqat Cheema the trend started to change after the takeover of Afghanistan by the Afghan Taliban in August 2023. The Taliban takeover came against the backdrop of hasty US withdrawal from the country. While Pakistani civilian and military leadership of the time insisted on a responsible withdrawal, the coalition troops withdrew rather chaotically leaving behind state-of-the-art military equipment and weapons worth billions of dollars effectively in the hands of Taliban.
The failure to achieve conciliation or a power-sharing formula between the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban was an additional factor that resulted in the fall of the Afghan Republic even before the coalition troops could complete their withdrawal. Even more worrisome was the outright collapse of the Afghan National Army, which allowed the Taliban to gain hold over the modern arms and equipment allocated to the Afghan Army.
After years of support to the Afghan Taliban – which enabled them to wage and win the insurgency against the US-led coalition – there was discernible hope in Pakistan that once at the helm of affairs in Kabul, the Afghan Taliban would not allow the TTP militants safe havens in Afghanistan. Islamabad took some steps to guard itself against the militants such as constructing the fence and reinforcing security measures along its long border with Afghanistan, but given the rugged and tough terrain, the border management was predictably going have their limitations and thus reliance was placed heavily on the Afghan Taliban to rein in TTP.
The expectations, however, soon started to falter. After capturing Kabul, the Afghan Taliban released dozens of hardcore militants – some of whom were involved in terrorist attacks against Pakistan and were wanted by Islamabad.
After the Afghan Taliban consolidated themselves in Afghanistan and claimed to have gained control over all parts of the country, TTP militants unsurprisingly gained the motivation that they could also replicate the Afghan Taliban playbook for Pakistan’s tribal districts that border Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban did not try to dissuade TTP from carrying out attacks inside Pakistan using Afghan soil and as per some reports, even facilitated their attacks.
Groups of TTP
While Pakistan continued to urge Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers to take action against TTP, they remained hesitant. The Afghan Taliban and TTP fought hand to hand against the US-led coalition and now, just for the sake of Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban were not going to pick arms against their once brothers in arms. Afghan Taliban insisted on holding talks between Pakistan and TTP militants.
As per some reports, the talks enabled the relocation of thousands of TTP militants in northwestern parts of KP province and allowed the various splinter groups of TTP much-needed time to reassemble and regroup.
Following the failure of the talks
TTP unleashed the current wave of terrorism using innovative tactics and employing the state-of-the-art arms and equipment left by NATO troops. As per some reports, the incidents of terrorism in Pakistan have undergone a 73% spike since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, which marks a major shift since the decline in terrorist violence since 2017-18.
Another worrisome trend that has been witnessed is the strengthening nexus between TTP militants and ethno-nationalist insurgents in Balochistan. On the face of it, the partnership may seem strange given TTP is driven by religious ideology and separatist groups in Balochistan have a secular orientation, but from an insurgency point of view, it’s a mutually beneficial union and adds a complicated dimension to Pakistan’s war against terrorism. As per reports, both sides are collaborating with each other for logistics, funding, and manpower to wage attacks.
For years, TTP has been trying to expand its footprint in other parts of Pakistan, and using the separatist groups, it wants to establish a footprint in Balochistan. On the other hand, Baloch insurgents are reportedly much more vulnerable financially and for the supply of arms than they were ever before.
The purpose of Baloch
The union with TTP partially not only resolves the issue of funding and arms but also allows Baloch separatists to operate more freely from Afghanistan now ruled by the old allies of their new partners – the Afghan Taliban.
Even more importantly, the armed violence in Balochistan, even if carried out by religious TTP serves the purpose of Baloch insurgents by damaging the sense of normalcy that the state has been trying to project with regard to the province.
Given Islamabad is pinning high hopes on the massive mineral resources of Balochistan to address its economic woes, the instability in Balochistan does not bode very well for Islamabad’s larger objectives vis-à-vis the province.
While TTP has claimed responsibility for most of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan, the ISKP has demonstrated its capability to carry out large-scale attacks in Pakistan – often with a high casualty figure. In July, ISKP targeted a rally of JUI-F resulting in the killing of more than 50 people.
It’s worth mentioning that the JUI-F is a right-wing politico-religious party with an ideological association with the same school of thought as that of the Afghan Taliban and TTP. The targeting of soft targets of opposite schools of thought by ISKP represents a worrisome trend that could significantly add to terrorist violence in Pakistan.