Facing multiple terrorism challenges geographically focused in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtoonwa with tentacles spread in other provinces, Pakistan’s government and the Army is fumbling for shaping an appropriate response.
While a comprehensive National Action Plan was derived in 2014 and was subsequently revised in 2021, to highlight the need to address multiple spheres these have not been implemented eight years after these were first outlined.
Essentially apart from kinetic counter terrorism response, the socio-economic and religious extremism facets were also to be addressed requiring substantial political interventions which are complex in nature. These remain unaddressed.
On the kinetic approach as well the on again- off again operational vis a vis negotiations response has only provided space for the terrorist groups particularly the Tehreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which has regrouped and rejuvenated to launch a series of complex terrorist attacks targeting mainly the police in the first quarter of 2023.
Trends in Terrorist Attacks
January 2023 was one of the deadliest months since July 2018, as 134 people lost their lives — a 139 per cent spike — and 254 received injuries in at least 44 militant attacks across the country reported the Dawn.
According to the statistics released by Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), militants carried out 58 attacks during the month of February in which 62 people were killed, including 27 civilians, 18 security forces personnel and 17 militants while 134 people were injured, including 54 civilians and 80 security forces personnel.
The upward trajectory of anti-state violence continued in February as 32 per cent more insurgents’ attacks were recorded compared with January 2023. However, the number of deaths declined by 56 per cent compared with January.
Institute for Economics and Peace in the Global Terroirsm Index has indicated that Pakistan recorded the second largest increase in terrorism-related deaths worldwide in 2022 with 643 fatalitise slightly higher than that of Afghanistan
3 D Strategy
Dawn News reported that the Army Chief has proposed, “ revisiting the anti-terrorism action plan and suggested a multi-dimensional or ‘3-D’ strategy”. The 3 D are - ‘deter, dialogue and development’ to neutralise the terrorists. This is said to be a whole of government approach involving “security forces, legal fraternity, civil society, politicians, social workers, bureaucracy, diplomats and media”.
While on paper the 3 D strategy confirms to norms for counter terrorism, implementation will remain a factor as Pakistan has not been able to effectively root out extremism that has facilitated groups as the TTP.
More over dialogue when the Army Chief has said that negotiations in the past have resulted in giving a boost to the terrorist groups who have regrouped may also be facetious. As for development given the state of economy there are severe limitations that can be ploughed in the tribal areas. A more viable strategy would be to IBOs to counter active militants and deny them the support base amongst the people at large through a public engagement campaign by the political class and others.
Afghan Taliban Conundrum
With coming to power of the Afghan Taliban in Kabul, the natural inclination of that entity which shares a common ideology of Pashtun Nationalism with the TTP was to provide sanctuaries to the group while suggesting to the Pakistan Army and the ISI to open reconciliation. The cease fire which ensued was used by the TTP to regroup and was finally forsaken in November last year.
Evolving Counter Terorism Strategy
Faced with a mounting challenge the Pakistan Army under a new chief General Asim Munir who took over in November last year is looking to contain violence while hoping that the roots of terror can also be eliminated.
In the wake of these developments, an in-camera sitting of the National Assembly (NA) was held on April 14th in which the top military leadership briefed key legislators.
Dawn News reported that according to a National Assembly Secretariat notice, the agenda of the meeting was “Briefing on current issues of the National Security”.
This comes after a meeting in the previous week of the National Security Committee which relaunched the National Action Plan (NAP) within 15 days to “crush militants reportedly coming in from Afghanistan”. A press release issued by the Prime Minister’s Office said, “The meeting agreed to launch an all-out comprehensive operation with [the participation of] entire nation and government to rid the country of the menace of terrorism with renewed vigour and determination.”
Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Asim Munir claimed that negotiations with militants in the past helped terrorists regroup in the country and said the campaign will be a whole of government approach. "This is not a new operation but a whole national approach." "Alhamdulillah, there is no no-go area in Pakistan at this time. A large number of martyrs laid down their lives for this success. They shed their blood for the country," he said as per a report in News Pakistan.
"Security forces are ready for permanent peace in the country. In this regard, intelligence-based operations are conducted on a daily basis," the army chief added. "We should leave the discussion of new and old Pakistan and talk about our Pakistan from now on. Pakistan has no shortage of resources and manpower," the army chief said.
"Elected representatives of the people should decide the nation's destination. Pakistan Army will fully support Pakistan in its journey of development and success," he said.
Search for Counter Terrorism Strategy Continues
Pakistan over a period has attempted varied counter terrorism strategies which has resulted in periodic reduction of violence but without resolution of the core factors. In 2001-2008 when the military was in power, Pakistan relied on military operations, banned extremist organizations, reformed Madrasahs and carried out drone strikes.
The next stage with Pakistan People's Party in power encompassed reliance on Drones and military operations in Swat and South Waziristan Agency.
When PLM N Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif was in power peace talks were attemptied but after the Army Public School attack in 2014, operation Zarab-e-Azab was launched by then Army Chief General Rahil Sharif.
This was followed by the Radd ul Fasad operation under General then Army Chief General Qamar Jawed Bajwa.
Militancy was curbed but the TTP soon regrouped and with Afghan Taliban in power had once again launched a series of attacks which are presently ongoing.
There is a degree of sophistication with the attacks getting more complex in March. Thus in an attack in Lakki Marwat in March first the police station was targeted followed by ambush of the security forces column reacting to the same.
The TTP has also benefited from the large number of personal weapons and night fighting aids left by the NATO forces in Afghanistan. “It can be seen all over the place. On the streets of Kabul, I saw it myself,” Pakistan Defence Minister responded in an interview with the Voice of America and claimed that the TTP were using “light weapons, assault rifles, ammunition, night vision goggles and sniper rifles” which were left behind by US troops.
Defence Minister Khawaja Asif has warned Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers that Islamabad will strike terrorist hideouts inside the neighbouring country if the latter were unable to rein in anti-Pakistan militants in the interview with VOA. “We have communicated to Kabul during our last visit [in February] that please, as our neighbours and brothers, whatever is emanating from Afghan soil is your responsibility,” he said. “If that is not done, at some point we’ll have to […] resort to some measures, which will definitely — wherever [terrorists] are, their sanctuaries on Afghan soil — we’ll have to hit them,” he said. “We’ll have to hit them because we cannot tolerate this situation for long.”
While a comprehensive strategy has been proposed by the Army Chief the contours of the same are not clear. If the NAP 2021 is being revived it is too complex for the Pakistan government in the present state of flux to administer especially when the economic arm will remain a challenge. Thus the Army Chief’s statement may remain empty rhetoric.
A a major counter militancy campaign on the lines of Zarb-i-Azb and Radd-ul-Fassad ismost unlikely given the stasis in the political classes over regional elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtoonwa.
More over in Khyber Pakhtoonwa Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf or the PTI has a dominating presence and though out of power has an influence on the masses. More over people from the area are wary of a military operations which can cause displacement and disrupt the lives of thousands. How it will react to a major operation remains to be seen?
Addressing the sanctuaries of the TTP under the political and security umbrella of the Taliban administration in Afghanistan is another challenge.
Targeting TTP leaders can be attempted but may not find favour in Kabul givin filial linkages.
In the wake of the complexities focus may remain on Intelligence Based Operations (IBO) which are unlikely to achieve tangible outcomes given large numbe of TTP cadres many of them based in Afghanistan the muddle through approach will continue.
Note- This report only addresses terrorism threat from the TTP, Baloch insurgency will be covered separately.