Features | Security | South Asia

The Return of Militancy in Pakistan

After a few years of relative peace, militant groups are on the rise again – and at a dangerous time for Pakistan.

Muhammad Akbar Notezai
The Return of Militancy in Pakistan

Pakistani rescue workers and police officers examine the site of a bomb explosion in an Islamic seminary, in Peshawar, Pakistan, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Muhammad Sajjad

Pakistan has enjoyed comparative peace over the past few years, other than sporadic incidents. Following a devastating attack on a school in Peshawar in 2014, the state cracked down on religious and other banned militant outfits under the National Action Plan (NAP), the country’s 20-point counterterrorism strategy. This offensive pushed such groups back into hiding, temporarily disrupting their networks. As a result, the country’s major cities have been largely immune to militancy.

An October 27 IED blast at a religious school in Peshawar, in which eight young people died and more than 110 were injured, has disrupted that peace.

It is believed that Sheikh Rahimuddin Haqqani, a Afghan cleric originally from Jalalabad, in Afghanistan, was the target. He was taking a class in the religious school where the explosion took place. He was the target of suspected elements of the Islamic State in a gun attack in 2016. He escaped safely back then, as he did this time, protected by his young security guards from the religious school.

Close to the Afghan border in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Peshawar has witnessed some of the worst violence of the last two decades,  since the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001. The most horrific and horrendous attack was the 2014 incident in which Taliban gunmen stormed a military school. By the end, 150 were dead, most of them children. The attack shook the conscience of the world, and provoked Pakistan’s security forces to take a sterner approach under NAP, which was formulated in the aftermath of the tragedy. The NAP called for the military to go after banned outfits of all sorts, including religious and nationalist groups often believed to be implicitly backed by Pakistani authorities. The strategy provided a brief calm, but now once again Peshawar has been hit, allegedly by religious militants.

Unfortunately, the Peshawar blast was followed a motorcycle blast in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan in the southwest of Pakistan. As a result of the blast, three people reportedly were killed and over a dozen injured. Worryingly, the blast occurred in the outskirts of Quetta as opposition leaders of the country’s major political parties were present in the city, addressing tens of thousands people in a bid to mount pressure on the government.

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Over the past few months, Pakistan’s security landscape has changed fast. The spate of attacks clearly suggests that the militant groups are regrouping, prompting a resurgence of violence. That does not augur well for the cash-strapped Pakistani government, already reeling under International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans.

In Pakistan, the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province – have long been the major source of militancy, which eventually evolved into a threat to the state itself. Over the past five years, the security forces have carried out major operations against Taliban-linked groups, flushing them out of the tribal areas. Since then, other than sporadic attacks, these groups have been biding their time, but are now gathering momentum once again – this time with the addition of the Islamic State (IS) to the list of groups carrying out attacks. Reports suggest the militant groups have managed to regroup, despite being weakened by the intelligence-based operations.

The current wave of attacks is taking place at a crucial time, when the major opposition political parties are in the streets protesting against the government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan. Other than political uncertainty, Pakistan is increasingly faced with financial woes, which have only gotten worse in recent years. In Pakistan, China has become the dominant investor under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). But since Khan came to office in 2018, Chinese investors have been discouraged by the government’s inexperience, especially in economic management. Recently, the Chinese have returned, reviving the multibillion-dollar CPEC projects after some delays.

In order to attract investments and economic development, Pakistan’s government has to ensure the safety and stability of the country. In that regard, some analysts have pointed out a curious coincidence: The resurgence of religious-cum-sectarian attacks has been taking place exactly as the CPEC has been revived in the country after quite some time on the backburner. Baloch militant groups have been opposed to CPEC from day one, and have been carrying out attacks in Gwadar – the heart of the CPEC – and elsewhere in the country in order to show their opposition.

The Chinese, despite their heavy investments, are concerned about the security situation. Militant groups, including banned religious outfits, have carried out attacks against Chinese workers and installations in the past. Now they have to worry that the revival of CPEC projects has gone hand-in-hand with the recent upsurge of militancy in various parts of the country. Already, Baloch separatists have carried out major attacks against Chinese workers and installations in Balochistan province, as well as in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh.

Pakistan’s security-centered approach has failed to stop such attacks, which are detrimental to Chinese investments. So the government has shifted course with the announcement of the South Balochistan Package, meant to generate jobs and other economic opportunities in the area. Officials believe that, through this effort, Baloch youth can be dissuaded from joining the rank and file of the separatists in Balochistan. But realities on the ground suggest otherwise. A political question cannot be resolved through economic policy alone.

Meanwhile, along with terrorism, sectarianism between Shia and Sunni groups is also rearing its head in various parts of the country. As seen in the past, sloganeering can trigger sectarian violence, which has already claimed thousands of lives in Pakistan. Keeping in view the recent sectarian developments in the country, Pakistan could slip into sectarian chaos anytime. Since policymakers have not learnt any lessons from the past, it keeps on repeating, with dire consequences for the state and its people. Among other problems, major political parties are not giving serious attention to recent sectarian tensions: either they are complicit or they are too afraid to speak out about it.

Militancy has returned to Pakistan after a brief hiatus. If it is not dealt with, it could initiate a new cycle of violence, engulfing the peace and prosperity of the country and the region as a whole.