The terrorism threat in Pakistan has always hovered like a black cloud, taking away precious lives. Now, after a brief respite, the clouds are gathering once again.
The danger was epitomized by late January’s tragic terrorist incident in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The attack on a mosque in the Police Lines area killed 101 people and injured over 200. The carnage caused by the bombing was exacerbated by the fact that the roof of the mosque fell down on the policemen who were gathered for worship inside, killing and injuring hundreds in an instant.
But the problem runs deeper than a single attack. The entire nation has gone back into depression amid the latest wave of terrorism, which started after the Afghan Taliban retook Kabul in mid-August 2021.
It is well known that the state of Pakistan has been friendly toward the Afghan Taliban. There is no dearth of literature explaining why the Pakistani authorities helped the Afghan Taliban clinch power in the neighboring country. Among other things, Pakistan was seeking to counter the growing Indian interest in its backyard, as both India and Pakistan consider each other arch rivals.
In Pakistan, however, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have been fighting the state since 2007, after the Pakistan Army raided the Lal Masjid (red mosque) in the heart of its capital, Islamabad. Despite the threat of the TTP, the Pakistani authorities swallowed a poison pill in order to help the Afghan Taliban come to power. Leaders in Pakistan must have been well aware of the fact that the Afghan Taliban would not take action against their brethren in the TTP.
After the latest assault in Peshawar, which was carried out by a splinter group of the outlawed TTP, Pakistani legislators have categorically confessed, even in the Pakistan’s own parliament, that their country itself was responsible for giving birth to terrorist forces in the name of Afghan jihad since 1979, when the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Pakistan – along with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and China – stepped in to push back the Soviets by creating jihadist networks in the border regions of both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Today, terrorists groups of all kinds find their roots in the Soviet Union invasion in the region and the jihadist opposition. Like the proverbial Frankenstein’s monster, past mistakes have come back to haunt Pakistan in the shape of the TTP.
At the same time, religious extremism has penetrated deep inside Pakistan, resulting in an explosion in the number of jihadist groups. Before the TTP’s resurgence in 2021, these extremist groups had been posing a greater threat to the people of Pakistan – at times with the tacit acceptance of the authorities. Over the decades now, the threat of religious extremism has deepened in Pakistani society, to the extent that students from Pakistan’s top universities have joined jihadist groups, including the TTP, let alone students of madrassas, jihadis’ traditional nursery ground.
This is why, in a very rare sight in the country, the police in Peshawar staged a protest following the assault on the Police Line mosque. Wearing their weapons and uniforms, Peshawar’s police asked the authorities to ensure their own security. The assault has clearly demoralized the police, but it also poses the question: If the law enforcers themselves are not safe in Pakistan, then what about ordinary citizens?
Today, the threat of the TTP has increased manifold in Pakistan. The terrorist group finds its sanctuaries back in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban are back on the throne in Kabul, providing oxygen to the TTP. However, despite longstanding perception of close ties to Pakistan, the Taliban government in Kabul flatly refuses to assist in rooting out the TTP. Instead, the Taliban leadership denies that the TTP are being granted safe sanctuaries in Afghanistan, so much so the Taliban authorities, instead, have asked their Pakistani counterparts to put their own house in order first before blaming others.
“Had terrorism originated from Afghanistan, it would have spread to China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran as well,” the Afghan Taliban’s acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi said in a speech. “Afghanistan is not a center of terrorism. The problem is within Pakistan.” Muttaqi added that Pakistani ministers should focus on investigating the Peshawar bombing rather than pointing fingers at others.
As the gap continues to widen between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the TTP has been taking advantage of the situation. It seems to be in the best interest of the TTP for the two countries to remain at loggerheads.
Ever since the beginning of religious militancy in Pakistan, both Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces, bordering Afghanistan, have been hard hit. Peshawar, in particular, has a tragic history of terrorist attacks.
In 2014, a splinter group of the TTP slaughtered 144 people, most of them children, at the Army Public School, which sent shock waves around the entire world. Every years on December 16, people in Pakistan mourn the death of the children killed by the Pakistani Taliban. Yet less than ten years after that devastating tragedy, another grievous attack struck Peshawar.
Despite this grievous threat to the lives of people and the state itself, and the reality that terrorism is an old phenomenon in Pakistan, the state authorities, especially the policymakers, do not seem to learn any lessons from their past mistakes. To this day, they differentiate between the “good Taliban and bad Taliban,” while the people at large are at the mercy of terrorists by any name.
After the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Pakistan attempted to broker a peace deal with the TTP, despite past experiences all but ensuring the effort would be fruitless. The extra time bought by the government ceasefire has given a further boost to the TTP, which announced an unilateral end to the ceasefire at its leisure. Now the TTP has started carrying out attacks again, to deadly effect.
Pakistan is further going through one of its worst economic crisis in decades. The new wave of terrorism has further compounded the economic woes confronting the country, to the extent that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had to reassure the Apex Committee meeting held on terrorism that Pakistan’s economic woes would not derail its counterterrorism efforts. At the meeting, held following the Peshawar incident, Sharif told the attending political, military and religious leaders, “All resources will be mobilized. This meeting reaffirms our aim to sit together until this menace is eradicated.”
Pakistan’s economic woes are intertwined with the fateful decision to nurture the jihadist movement. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan has been taking advantage of its strategic location in the region, as the Western world continued to fund the country to further their own strategic interests. Under these circumstance, Pakistan’s policymakers did not pay enough attention to economically strengthen the foundations of the country on their own, because the country was being given monetary help by West – or, to be more specific, the United States – to fight their wars in Afghanistan.
Today, the U.S. is gone from Afghanistan, while Pakistan is left to deal with the terrorism on its own. The well of U.S. money is running dry. Last year, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zaradari said that the United States was willing to provide Pakistan with funds for the purpose of enhancing border security and preventing cross-border attacks from Afghanistan. That signifies the U.S. has limited its fund to merely help Pakistan with one specific facet of the terrorist threat; otherwise, Pakistan would be on its own to deal with the security-related issues with Afghanistan.
After decades of missteps, Pakistan has to deal with the TTP, which poses a lethal threat to the state and its citizens. The country can no longer afford to wait for others to pull it out of this self-made chaos.