Pakistan has witnessed a renewed spate of terrorism in recent months, particularly after the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) called off its ceasefire and asked its fighters to resume countrywide attacks. Since the Afghan Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, there has been a 55 percent increase in terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Terrorism’s resurgence has brought into sharp focus the fragility of Pakistan’s counterterrorism gains.
While Pakistan will have to adopt a more proactive counterterrorism policy, an analysis of factors underlying the resurgence of terrorism is important, as a comprehensive understanding of the problem will pave the way for informed policymaking.
The foremost among the factors contributing to resurgent terrorism in Pakistan is its myopic Afghan policy of supporting the Taliban, which enabled the group to claw its way back to power. Pakistan backed the Taliban against the U.S.-supported regimes in Kabul, seeking to corner India and rein in the TTP with the former’s help.
However, the Taliban’s return to power had a rejuvenating effect on the TTP. The group celebrated the Taliban’s victory as its own. The TTP and the Taliban have longstanding battlefield, political, ethnic, and ideological linkages. Hence, instead of offering any help to Pakistan, the Taliban regime termed the TTP as Pakistan’s internal matter. The Taliban only offered to help facilitate negotiations to reach a political settlement, provided both Pakistan and the TTP agreed to resolve their differences.
Another reason for the resurgence of terrorism is Pakistan’s engagement in talks with the TTP from a position of weakness. This served to give the militant group much-needed time and space to recuperate and spread its network in Pakistan. The first attempt to reach a peace deal was made in 2021, which ended with the TTP scrapping the one-month truce in December and resuming attacks.
The second attempt was made in May 2022. It led to an indefinite ceasefire in June and a formal peace process between the two sides. However, peace talks soon hit a dead end as both sides did not budge from their stated positions relating to the reversal of the ex-FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) region’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, among other things. The TTP wanted a reversal of the merger while Pakistan refused to accept this demand.
At any rate, the second attempt to reach a political settlement collapsed on November 28 when the TTP called off the ceasefire and directed its fighters to resume attacks across Pakistan.
A report by Pakistan’s premier counterterrorism agency, the National Counter Terrorism Authority, has noted that peace talks contributed to the TTP’s rising attacks in Pakistan. If history is anything to go by, that result was predictable: Around six peace deals with the TTP and other local militant factions in the past have failed to achieve peace and contributed to the rise of violent incidents.
The abeyance of violence due to the weakening of terrorist networks in the 2015-2020 period and the fencing of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border created a misplaced notion of victory and a false sense of security. Pakistan confused the absence of violence with the restoration of peace without realizing the fragility and reversibility of its counterterrorism gains. Similarly, the fencing of Pakistan’s 2,640-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan was seen as a means to minimize the blow back of insecurity and spillover of violence from Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power.
However, as time progressed, it has become evident that the border fencing could not stop the TTP’s cross-border attacks and infiltration from Afghanistan into Pakistan.
In the context of insurgency and asymmetric warfare, inter-group mergers and alliances are key components to non-state violent actors’ lethality and longevity. The more a militant group is allied, the more lethal and resilient it becomes. Since 2020, the TTP under its new chief Nur Wali Mehsud has paid close attention to reuniting various splinter factions. In the last two years, more than 22 militant factions have merged with the TTP, enhancing its operational strength and expanding its geographical outreach in Pakistan. These mergers and reunifications have also played a key role in the resurgence of militant violence in Pakistan.
Furthermore, the complacency emanating from an unfounded sense of victory against the TTP and inadequate counterterrorism infrastructure also contributed to the resurgence of militant violence. A report submitted to the parliament in December has highlighted serious capacity issues and law enforcement gaps in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Counter Terrorism Department (CTD). Since the Taliban’s takeover, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s police have borne the brunt of the TTP’s attacks, losing more than 120 personnel in 83 assaults. Yet the report pointed out that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa CTD’s manpower is poorly trained, under-resourced, and ill-equipped. For instance, it spends less than 4 percent of its budget on operations, with zero allocations for procurement. Likewise, its budget of $9.48 million or 2.18 billion Pakistani rupees, including salaries and allowances, is half of Punjab CTD’s $2.08 million budget.
Lately, Pakistan-Taliban relations have deteriorated, resulting in frequent border flare-ups and closures. The Taliban have accused Pakistan of providing its airspace to the United States for the drone strike in Kabul that killed al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. At the same time, Pakistan-U.S. counterterrorism cooperation against the residual threat of transnational militancy in Afghanistan is progressively improving. Recently, the U.S. included the TTP’s deputy head, Qari Amjad, as well as al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent chief Osama Mahmood and his deputy Atif Yahya Ghori in its designated list of global terrorists.
Going forward, an improvement in Pakistan-U.S. ties will negatively impact the already abysmal Taliban-Pakistan relations, to the detriment of Pakistan’s volatile security situation.
Pakistan’s contradictions in Afghanistan have come full circle. While Pakistan has been seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan against India, the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan has provided the TTP with reverse strategic depth against Pakistan.
Without revisiting Pakistan’s myopic Afghan policy, a new counterterrorism campaign alone will not fix Pakistan’s terrorism dilemma. Furthermore, Pakistan will have to take a long view of the terrorism challenge because terrorism is likely to persist. Irrespective of the Pakistani response, any improvement or deterioration of the terrorism threat in Pakistan will depend on the evolving situation in Afghanistan.