Pakistan’s new army chief Gen. Asim Munir took office on November 29 amid great political and economic tumult in the country. The risk of economic default is looming over the country again amid shrinking foreign exchange reserves, which currently stand at just $7.4 billion. Political turbulence is likely to increase further in the coming weeks and will challenge the military establishment’s apolitical approach.
The internal security situation is poised to worsen, too. A day before Munir took office, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ended the June ceasefire and urged its fighters to carry out attacks across Pakistan. On November 30, a TTP suicide bomber targeted a police van protecting the polio vaccination team in Balochistan.
Among a plethora of internal and external challenges, it is Pakistan’s deteriorating internal security situation that will occupy most of Gen. Asim’s immediate attention. Though TTP continued attacks under the garb of retaliation since the suspension of peace talks in July, the recent suicide attack marks a new phase of terrorism in Pakistan. Thus far, the majority of TTP’s attacks were confined to the ex-FATA region and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but the new directive is to hit targets across Pakistan and shift from the defensive to an offensive strategy.
Since the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, terrorist attacks have increased by 52 percent in Pakistan. The Taliban’s return to power had a rejuvenating impact on Pakistani militant groups, particularly the TTP. According to the United Nations Sanction Committee on Al-Qaida and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant report, published in July, TTP enjoys greater operational freedom in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.
Pakistan’s two peace overtures with the TTP over the past year have failed. The first ceasefire reached in November last year lasted for a month. The second attempt to revive the stalled peace process in 2022 produced another ceasefire in June, paving the way for formal peace talks between Pakistan and the TTP. However, both the ceasefire and peace talks were suspended in August following the killing of some TTP commanders in different areas of Afghanistan.
The leadership transition taking place in the Pakistan Army amid political turmoil in Pakistan created a lot of confusion concerning the country’s counter-terrorism (CT) policy. Now that Munir has assumed office, he will have to articulate whether the military is in favor of peace talks or kinetic operations vis-à-vis the TTP.
Talks with the TTP have failed twice and military operations have produced mixed results, a tactical respite before terrorism’s revival. The TTP’s sanctuaries in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s umbrella have further compounded Pakistan’s internal security dilemma. This aspect will further reduce the tactical efficacy of kinetic operations because TTP fighters will escape to Afghanistan and resume attacks once the operation is slowed or halted. In this context, leadership decapitations and surgical strikes, including the use of drones, would assume greater importance in the revised CT policy.
Furthermore, it remains to be seen if Gen. Munir will coin a new nomenclature for his kinetic offensive, if he goes down that path, or persists with the old one. As army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani launched the Rah-e-Rast (the righteous path) military operation in Swat and Rah-e-Nijat (the path of deliverance) in South Waziristan, while Gen. Raheel Sharif’s clearance operation in North Waziristan was named Zarb-e-Azb (swift sword).
Likewise, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa‘s operation Radd-ul-Fasaad (eliminating the discord) was aimed at consolidating the gains of previous operations by removing the residual threat of terrorism and extremism. When Bajwa assumed charge as the army chief in November 2016, terrorism in Pakistan was at an all-time low but as he has left office, the terrorist threat has revived.
Therefore, it will be crucial to observe how Gen. Munir will define the mandate and rationale of his kinetic offensive, given the threat is externally directed from Afghanistan, and what nomenclature he will use.
Presently, there is no ownership of CT policy in Pakistan. Although in September, parliament’s National Security Committee decided to revive the Apex Committees, which were constituted in 2015, for better CT coordination of various state institutions, giving the National Counterterrorism Authority a lead policy role, as well as strengthening the CT infrastructure at the federal and provincial levels, the new army chief’s policy will be the key determinant of how Pakistan’s CT response will evolve in the coming years.
Meanwhile, ethno-separatist insurgents in Balochistan have evolved from waging a low-intensity conflict to emerging as a protracted threat, capable of mounting suicide and commando-style guerilla attacks across Balochistan and outside, particularly in Karachi. The new generation of Baloch separatists is more radical, carries no tribal baggage, buys into a more austere version of Baloch nationalism and has no inclination towards dialogue. The center of gravity of the insurgency has slipped from Baloch tribal chiefs like Hyrbair Marri and Brahamdagh Bugti to Baloch separatist leaders hailing from the non-tribal middle-class like Dr. Allah Nazar of the Baloch Liberation Front and Basher Zeb, the head of his own faction of the Baloch Liberation Army. The new chief will have to revisit the existing counterinsurgency campaign in Balochistan to plug the existing gaps.
While a fresh military operation is needed to clean up the areas of TTP’s reconstituted networks in the ex-FATA region and southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa along with further improving the ongoing clearance operation in Balochistan, equal emphasis should also be placed on non-military responses. The missing piece of the policy puzzle, despite enormous operational CT success, has been the absence of non-military responses, which challenge the ideological narrative of extremist groups and provide robust counter-narratives.
In the age of social media, the medium is the message. Therefore, within the realm of strategic communication, the social media component of non-kinetic responses should be given added importance because it will have an interface with the Pakistani youth.
Indeed, the plate of Pakistan’s new army chief is full, and he has little time to settle in. He must get the balance of kinetic and non-kinetic CT responses right in Pakistan and move the initiative of forging policies in the institutional realm rather than keeping such policy-making personality-centric. Time is of the essence.