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No good options for Pakistan as it tries to stem a new wave of militancy

‘Just as the Afghan Taliban have not moderated after years of fighting, the Pakistani Taliban are also unlikely to change.’

A medium shot of the grave of Zulfikhar Ali. Two flags are at the feet of the grave. To the right a flag of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police, on the left the flag of Pakistan. Somaiyah Hafeez/TNH
The grave of Zulfikhar Ali, a constable in the Peshawar police. Ali was one of more than 100 people to lose their lives in a suicide attack on a mosque in January.

Minutes after a suicide bomber attacked a crowded mosque in Peshawar’s Police Lines area on 30 January, Zulfikhar Ali’s father-in-law desperately tried to get through to him on his mobile phone. 


“When I heard of the blast, I called up Zulfikhar three to four times, but he didn’t answer,” Muhammad Ismail told The New Humanitarian. “We then went to Peshawar and searched for him in the mosque, and looked at each body being brought into the hospital. Around 4:30 in the morning, we found him beneath a pillar in the rubble, but it was too late.”


More than 100 people, mostly policemen, were killed in the attack.


The January bombing represented one of the deadliest blasts in Pakistan’s history, but it’s by no means the most recent.


Since then, there has been: an attack on a police headquarters in Karachi that killed four; at least two policemen killed in a “remote-controlled blast” in Balochistan’s Khuzdar district; and an attack on a crowded market in Balochistan that resulted in another four deaths. On 6 March, a suicide bomber in Balochistan killed nine policemen, with the so-called Isamic State claiming responsibility. And on 13 March, two more people were killed in another Khuzdar bombing. 


According to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based research organisation, the country had already witnessed a 27% spike in terrorist attacks in 2022 compared to 2021.


Many – but not all – of these attacks have been carried out by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has seen an upsurge in activity since a month-long ceasefire between the group and the Pakistani government collapsed last year.


The 30 January mosque blast was initially claimed by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a faction of the TTP. It said the attack had been carried out to avenge the death of its leader, Omar Khalid Khorasani, in a bombing last year in Afghanistan. Hours later, an official TTP spokesperson distanced the larger group from the incident, claiming it wasn’t its policy to target mosques. The police headquarters attack, however, was claimed by the TTP, while the three other attacks in Balochistan were not claimed by any organisation.


The Afghan Taliban effect


Experts say the latest wave of militancy intensified after the Afghan Taliban took back control in Kabul in August 2021, and that the TTP has stepped up attacks against Pakistani security personnel since late last year. 


While separate from the Afghan Taliban, the TTP shares a similar hardline Islamist ideology and is often referred to as the Pakistani Taliban.


Formed in 2007, the group has been waging a war on the Pakistani state, carrying out some of the deadliest attacks in the country’s history, including the 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, which resulted in 150 deaths, including 132 children.


The Pakistani military carried out major offensives in 2014 and 2017 that largely succeeded in suppressing the militant groups, bringing a period of relative respite and peace in the country. 


But since the Taliban has returned to power in neighbouring Afghanistan, analysts say the TTP has demonstrated a renewed conviction to overthrow the “un-Islamic” government in Pakistan.


“Pakistan was naive to think the Taliban would help Pakistan address its TTP problem. It was also naive to think a Taliban-led Afghanistan would be the best strategic outcome for Pakistan,” Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, told The New Humanitarian. 


“Nearly two years later, the Taliban have not only not helped Pakistan address its TTP problem, they’ve also openly called for better [Afghan] relations with India,” he added, explaining that a stronger bilateral relationship with Pakistan’s rival would signal less support for Islamabad.


Leadership change within the TTP, meanwhile, has resulted in splinter groups re-joining the parent group – creating a more powerful, cohesive organisation. In 2020, before US forces pulled out of Afghanistan, various TTP factions started to coalesce. The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan only galvanised the group further.


Meanwhile, negotiations with the TTP have seen little progress.


“Negotiations and ceasefires over the years have only helped the TTP, not the state.”


Pakistan first engaged in talks in 2021, pushing for the dissolution of the organisation, the rehabilitation of demobilised TTP fighters, and a commitment from the disarmed group to join mainstream politics. The talks resulted in a one-month ceasefire in early November, but that ended in December 2021 when the group resumed attacks, accusing the government of carrying out military operations against TTP fighters.


The two parties met again for talks in May 2022 that led to an indefinite ceasefire in June and the beginning of a formal peace process. But this ended in a deadlock when the TTP demanded the reversal of the merger of the Federal Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with the neighbouring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.


FATA had formerly been a semi-autonomous region, and for years was considered something of a safe haven for the TTP. The group enjoyed relative freedom to recruit there, and its fighters could escape easily across the porous Afghan border if needed.


Pakistan refused to accept this demand, owing to the strategic advantage it would have handed the TTP. But for Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States – now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute – such talks continued a pattern. 


“Negotiations and ceasefires over the years have only helped the TTP, not the state,” Haqqani told The New Humanitarian. “They have given the TTP breathing space to regroup, replenish its resources, and then restart its activities.”


Weeks before the deadly 30 January attack, a week-long demonstration took place in Wana, the largest town of Southern Waziristan, a tribal area once controlled by the Pakistani Taliban.


The locals, Pashtuns who have borne the brunt of Pakistan’s war on terror, chanted slogans for peace. The message at these rallies was clear: the people wanted no more violence – be it at the hands of the Pakistani Taliban or the military. Their list of grievances is long – they accuse the government of secret dealings with the armed groups and using their land for proxy wars. Provincial leaders had long been warning the central government about the regrouping of the TTP in Waziristan.


Many approaches, few successes 


As attacks have multiplied, Pakistan has looked towards Afghanistan’s Taliban government to help rein in the militants, including meeting with top officials in Kabul to urge them to police TTP activity within their borders. 


While there’s no evidence that the Taliban is actively helping the TTP to orchestrate attacks in Pakistan, they’re not preventing the group from using Afghan soil to stage these attacks in a neighbouring country, according to analysts.


Pakistani officials say this goes in direct violation of the 2020 Doha Agreement, which effectively ended the 20-year US and NATO war in Afghanistan, but also forbade the Taliban from letting terrorist organisations use its soil against the US or its allies. 


While the Taliban appears unable or unwilling to introduce curbs on the TTP in Afghanistan, the Pakistani government continues to insist that it stop harbouring a terrorist group.


Kugelman, of the Wilson Center, said such requests are unlikely to bear fruit. 


“The Taliban doesn’t turn on its militant allies. The most it will do is mediate talks between Pakistan and the TTP,” he said. “But let’s remember, in 2001, even when threatened with a US military invasion, the Taliban didn’t give up the al-Qaeda leadership. The group is not easy to influence when it comes to its relations with other terror groups.”


Instead, he suggested, the Pakistani government should encourage the Taliban to go further than simply mediating talks by offering them concessions like financial assistance or formal recognition.


While the Pakistani military managed to temporarily pacify the militants through large-scale operations in 2014 and 2017, Haqqani believes its approach has failed to recognise the ultimate aim of the TTP: an Islamic Emirate in Pakistan. 


“This entire region is unstable, be it Afghanistan or Pakistan. It is a spin-over of what is happening in Afghanistan.” 


“Pakistan’s civil and military leadership has been reluctant to recognise that violent radical Islamists are not just disgruntled people who can be placated with a negotiated settlement,” Haqqani said.


“They are men with strong beliefs and a sense of destiny who believe in using violence to shape the world according to their beliefs. Just as the Afghan Taliban have not moderated after years of fighting, the Pakistani Taliban are also unlikely to change.”


Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the situation in Pakistan cannot be viewed in isolation from events in Afghanistan.


“I wouldn't like to totally fault the [Pakistani] state here,” he told The New Humanitarian. “It is easier for us to do that. But to be very honest, this entire region is unstable, be it Afghanistan or Pakistan. It is a spin-over of what is happening in Afghanistan.” 


Referring to the 2015-2020 period as “negative peace”, Basit said Pakistan’s government missed an opportunity during that time to turn its military successes into permanent, political advantages by forging a better counter-terrorism strategy. “They didn’t do that, and now those military advantages have been compromised,” he concluded.


The surge in violent attacks across the country also comes at a time when Pakistan is faced with a political crisis, an economic crisis, and the fallout of last year’s deadly floods. Even if the government could devote its full resources to fighting the TTP, analysts admit the options are limited. 


All they can do, said Basit, is “keep requesting [things of] the Afghan Taliban. Maybe they will listen. If they don’t, you can keep requesting while doing limited strikes in Afghanistan.”


Kugelman was of a similar mind. “Pakistan has few good options short of a counter-terrorism offensive,” he concluded.


One step could be to prevent TTP cross-border movement by stepping up its military presence along the Afghan border, Kugelman suggested. “But for that to be successful,” he added, “the Taliban needs to better control its side of the border. And with tensions high between Pakistan and the Taliban, better border cooperation may be tough.”


For the many ordinary Pakistanis impacted by the rising violence, a solution can’t come soon enough. 


Ayesha Gul, the widow of Ali who was killed in the 30 January bombing, is expecting her fourth child in April and wonders how the baby will cope without a father.


“He was a very responsible, caring, and loving person,” she said. “It was going to be our tenth wedding anniversary this month.”


Edited by Abby Seiff.

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