[“Over 8,000 (Pakistani) men in uniform have been sacrificed on the altar of religious extremism. This figure is more than the total casualties suffered during the wars with the arch enemy India” – Pakistani analyst Tariq Aquil, writing in The Friday Times.]
With sophisticated arms and ammunition left behind by the United States likely falling into the hands of an array of Islamist militant groups, the “Af-Pak – Afghanistan-Pakistan – region” is poised to regain the dangerous position of being the world’s premier terrorist hub.
The return of the Taliban as rulers in Afghanistan has consolidated this position with the Al Qaida staging a comeback and the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) confronting the Taliban, even as the latter cushion the defiance of Pakistani security by the latter’s domestic Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
The circle of terror gets complete with consolidation of the older groups Pakistan has nurtured – banned officially but burgeoning – the Lashkar-e-Toyaba (LeT) and Jaish –e-Muhammad (JeM), to name only the biggies.
This is evident in the spurt of violence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, with its spill-over effect and concern in Iran, China and Central Asia. Blast in a mosque in Shia-majority Herat last November has worried Iran. China is concerned that its Uyghur rebels from Xinjiang continue to be present in the Af-Pak region’s ungovernable areas.
Save some stray reports, information on the situation in Afghanistan remains suppressed. But Pakistan’s case is worse with the TTP spreading its violence well out of the tribal FATA region and establishing its footprint from Karachi to Lahore and even in Islamabad, the national capital. Arrests of TTP cadres in Punjab, northern Sindh and parts of Balochistan indicate a lateral spread that is unprecedented.
Policemen and police stations are being attacked to cause ‘fear’ among the law-keepers. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) police Chief Moazzam Jah Ansari has said that the IS-K poses “a greater threat to peace and security in KP than does Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which claimed responsibility for the attack on policemen in Islamabad January 17 night.
Security analysts see a measure of coordination, but also overlapping in what seems turf war among various Islamist groups. This only complicates the task of the government that is desperately seeking to extend the olive branch and strike ‘peace’ deals.
Last month, the TTP ended a ceasefire reportedly brokered by the Taliban who are otherwise unwilling to physically evict the TTP, their ideological brother. Now, the Pakistan Government has reportedly enrolled a tribal Jirga to broker another deal.
The developing situation has got the all-powerful Pakistan Army worried because what the men in uniform gain gets wasted by the civilian leadership. General Javed Qaisar Bajwa has said that the Taliban and the TTP are “two sides of the same coin”. But he seems unable to get the politicians to let him get tough with the TTP and other groups. He is conscious of the sympathy the TTP enjoys among the people, including his soldiers.
Bajwa does not want to act without civilian endorsement. Analysts say the situation is identical to what his predecessor, Gen. Raheel Sharif faced with Nawaz Sharif Government.
Combating terror is part of the “internal challenge” in the National Security Policy unveiled on January 14. But how to deal with it remains classified in the 110 page report. Analysts say the civil and the military do not agree on how to deal with it.
The threat, however, is urgent. The opposition parties are asking questions about the government’s dealing with the TTP and its perceived reliance on the Kabul rulers. However, they do not take a clear stand opposing the government’s soft-pedalling of the TTP.
Analysts have been warning the Imran Khan Government that the Afghan Taliban have proved to be a liability for Pakistan and have been negatively affecting the country’s counterterrorism policies.
Prominent security analyst Muhammad Ameer Rana, writes in Dawn (January 23, 2022): “It (TTP) was involved in 87 terrorist attacks in 2021, an 84 percent increase over its attacks across Pakistan the year before. Apart from these, most of the cross-border attacks from Afghanistan in 2021 (12 out of 14) were also perpetrated by the TTP.
“The geographical spread and number of TTP attacks in 2021 indicate that while the group carried out most of the assaults in former FATA, it also showed it a presence in northern Balochistan and the Rawalpindi-Islamabad area.
He warns: “The TTP will continue to cause damage to Pakistan, and over time, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan will learn the tactics to avert pressure from Pakistan. After all, the TTP is their ideological brigade and shares the same view of establishing an Islamic order of governance.”
Opposing any peace talks with the TTP, Rana warns: “The TTP is not only a major actor of violence in Pakistan, it is also a facilitator of the regional operations of Al Qaeda and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Any probable operational alliance between the TTP and Al Qaeda or with ETIM against Chinese interests in Pakistan can prove lethal and cause a diplomatic crisis.”
An editorial in Dawn (January 21, the 2022) laments: “Sadly, the emerging scenario speaks of a monumental failure of policy in which the Pakistani state wilfully refused to gauge the extent of affinity between the Afghan Taliban and the TTP.”