Reaping what they sowed
In the wake of attacks in Peshawar and Karachi, Sudha Ramachandran examines the Pakistan government’s flawed policies that have led to the growth of violent extremism
On January 30, a man in police uniform entered a mosque inside a police compound in Peshawar in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and blew himself up. Over 100 people were killed and around 200 others were injured in the suicide attack. Most of the victims were police personnel.
The Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, an extremist faction of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility. However, the TTP subsequently distanced itself from the attack, with its spokesperson claiming that it is opposed to ‘any kind of action in mosques’.
A little over a fortnight later, heavily armed TTP militants stormed the Karachi Police chief’s office and killed four people, three of them policemen.
In both the Peshawar and Karachi attacks, policemen were the targets. The assailants were able to get past armed police to enter highly-fortified compounds/buildings.
Recent months have witnessed a surge in terror attacks in Pakistan, especially after the TTP called off the ceasefire with the Pakistan government on November 28 and ordered its fighters to carry out assaults across the country.
If the incident in Peshawar was among the deadliest to be carried out by any militant group against security personnel in decades, that in Karachi signalled yet again the TTP’s capacity to strike against high-profile and fortified targets outside its stronghold in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The TTP is a formidable terror group. Set up in 2007 in response to the Pakistan military’s operations to flush out Islamist militants from Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, the TTP’s objective is to overthrow the Pakistani state and establish sharia law. Its rise was spectacular. It carried out a string of major attacks, including that on the Army Public School at Peshawar in 2014, when at least 150 people, including 131 students, were killed. It also quickly took control of vast swathes of territory in Pakistan’s tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
Its fall was as rapid as its rise. US drone strikes and Pakistani military operations in TTP strongholds resulted in a severe weakening of the group. But the TTP was also weakened from within. Factional feuds led to the splintering of the group. Several TTP fighters also defected to the Islamic State.
Following Noor Wali Mehsud’s emergence as its leader in 2018, the TTP witnessed a revival. Several breakaway factions returned to the fold; some 22 factions are said to have merged with the parent TTP. This has boosted the TTP’s operational capacity and reach.
Additionally, the Afghan Taliban’s capture of power in Kabul in August 2021 has provided the TTP with a significant boost. The two enjoy a strong relationship that goes beyond ethnic and kinship ties. They share ideological and strategic goals, have fought alongside each other, and sheltered each other’s fighters.
The Pakistani government has pushed the Taliban regime to rein in the TTP and shut down its sanctuaries on Afghan soil.But this hasn’t happened. Nor is it likely to happen as the Taliban regime sees the TTP as a valuable asset to pressure Pakistan.
Differences between the Taliban regime and the Pakistan government are growing and the TTP is benefiting from the widening rift.
Pakistani authorities blame the Taliban regime for the TTP’s mounting capacity to engage the Pakistani forces. However, the Pakistani government cannot absolve itself of responsibility for the threats it faces from extremism in general and the TTP in particular.
After all, for decades, successive Pakistani governments have pursued the policy of nurturing terrorist groups to achieve foreign policy and strategic goals. Groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed were set up to pressure India in Kashmir while the Afghan Taliban was robustly supported to further Pakistan’s strategic ambitions. This support to terrorist and extremist groups has boomeranged, resulting in groups like the TTP turning their guns on Islamabad.
Pakistani analysts have also drawn attention to Islamabad’s flawed and half-hearted implementation of strategies against the TTP.
Its military operations in the tribal areas were successful in significantly weakening the TTP a decade ago and it did build a fence along its border with Afghanistan to prevent fighters from crossing over for sanctuary/attacks. However, little was done to prevent the TTP’s re-emergence. And little has been done to tackle the spread of religious extremism and indoctrination.
Again, while robust efforts were made to eliminate TTP leaders and fightersthrough counter-insurgency operations,Pakistani military commanders negated the gains by reportedly cutting deals with TTP fighters, which allowed them to escape to safe havens in Afghanistan. Additionally, ill-timed and poorlythought-outceasefires and talks paved the way for the TTP to regroup and return to fighting at a time of its convenience.
Importantly, although it is the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police that has borne the brunt of the TTP attacks, Pakistan has not equipped them adequately to take on the terror outfit. A report shared at a meeting of the National Security Committee that the English daily Dawn reported about in December drew attention to ‘capacity gaps’ in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD).
Consider this. The Pakistani province of Punjab witnessed five terrorist incidents in 2022 compared to 704 such incidents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Yet the budget allocation for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa CTD was less than half of that for Punjab. Besides, just 4 percent of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa CTD budget went towards counter-militancy operations, with the rest being spent on pay and perks. With procurements and training of police personnel in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa not receiving the attention it deserves, police in the restive province are unable to push back against the TTP.
The mood in Pakistan’s security establishment appears to be in favour of resolute military action against the TTP. That will require consensus among the country’s political and military leadership.
Pakistan’s political parties are divided on the matter, with former Prime Minister Imran Khan,who is chairman of the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, preoccupied with ousting the Shehbaz Sharif government and, to this end, stirring unrest to push for early national and provincial elections in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab.
Pakistan appears to be preparing the ground for the launch of military operations against the TTP. US-Taliban counter-terrorism cooperation has got back on track in recent months and could see the two sides work together against the TTP. This will not be without problems, as the US may be looking to take such cooperation further to include the targeting of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan. This may not be acceptable to Pakistan.
An important question that Pakistan’s security establishment will be grappling with is that of raids into Afghanistan to dismantle TTP bases there. There is a danger that this will inflame an already troubled border and make the Taliban regime even more intransigent on the question of snapping support to the TTP.
An important factor that Islamabad will have to consider as it plans its strategy is financial resources. With the economic crisis in Pakistan spirallingand mass protests a clear and present danger, where will Islamabad find the money for the military operations? Military offensives in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will also trigger the displacement of the local population. Multiple challenges loom.