Pakistani security forces are unable to deal with a new wave of terror attacks, more because of the ambivalence in the country’s approach towards religious extremism than the lag in military preparedness both vis-à-vis India they want to square up with, and vis-à-vis the terror elements they have emboldened over the years. In the process, they have turned Pakistan into a nest of terror, that the world is talking about. Pakistan’s defence that it has been a victim of terrorism rather than an enabler of terror has fallen on deaf ears.
The caretaker government of Pakistan has come hard on some of the Afghans staying in Pakistan allegedly staying illegally in the country. Briefing a news conference on 3 October after the apex committee of the National Action Plan (NAP) meeting held in the backdrop of the rise in terror attacks in the country, presided over by caretaker Prime Minister Anwarul Haq Kakar, Caretaker Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti called them “illegal refugees” and asked them to leave the country by 1 November 2023. The minister said that Pakistan would take strict action against those staying in Pakistan illegally, “including Afghan nationals, who would be arrested and expelled to their native countries.” 1
This is being viewed as a tactic to build pressure on the Afghan Taliban to act against the members of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), allegedly present inside the Afghan territory., Bugti claimed that of the 4.2 million Afghan people living in Pakistan, at least three million were living without any legal documents. This expectedly invoked a response from the Afghan Taliban with its spokesperson saying “[t]he behaviour of Pakistan against Afghan refugees is unacceptable.” The spokesperson said that the “Afghan refugees are not involved in Pakistan's security problems”2 and should not be harassed by Pakistani officials.
Among the myriad of issues that Pakistan is facing, ranging from political instability to economic crisis to foreign policy challenges, the nosedive of its relations with Afghanistan at a time when the Afghan Taliban fully control the affairs of the country is worrying for Islamabad/Rawalpindi. If the upsurge in terror attacks continues in the country, the relations are likely to deteriorate further. The turn of events could have serious implications, more for Pakistan than for the Afghan Taliban, something that neither the rulers nor the people in Pakistan would have expected after the arrival of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan in August 2021.
Afghan Taliban’s response to terror attacks in Pakistan
Amidst the upsurge in terror attacks in Pakistan, in its monthly report, the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS) said that in August 2023, 99 terror incidents were reported in the country, the highest in one month since November 2014.3 September 2023 witnessed the highest rate of killings and injuries in the last 6 years in the country, which included 62 percent civilians and 19 percent security forces, according to the PICSS report.4 Civilian casualties in terror attacks across the country almost doubled in September as compared to August.
The suicide attack in Mastung, Balochistan, at a religious rally, organized to celebrate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad (12 Rabi ul Awal Hijri calendar),5 points to an increasing trend of such attacks: there were five in July, four in August and three in September that were “responsible for the majority of damage”,6 PICSS recorded. Sarfaraz Bugti said there 24 suicide attacks had already taken place in 2023 and claimed that Afghan nationals were involved in 14 of these.7 The claim indicates a deterioration in the security environment inside Pakistan which has have had their adverse effects on Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. This is also an indirect admission Afghan Taliban’s policy towards elements attacking Pakistan has not been consonance with the expectations from Pakistan that the Taliban as friends of Pakistan would take conclusive action against perpetrators of attacks allegedly operating out of Afghanistan.
Since the arrival of the Afghan Taliban in Kabul the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have not so far been to the liking of the policymakers in Pakistan. They had expected an obliging and grateful regime in Kabul eager to entertain their requests for conclusive action against anti-Pakistan forces launching attacks from Afghan soil. However, the Taliban have adopted a policy of denial that smacks of indifference and blissful unconcern. In the meanwhile, during the Taliban’s first one-year rule in Afghanistan, Pakistan has witnessed a 51 percent rise in terror attacks.8 Forces of the two countries have also exchanged fires on the border and at various check-posts many times in the last two years, leading to diplomatic confrontations. In December 2022, at least 6 people were killed and 17 injured on the Pakistan side from the alleged unprovoked firing from the Afghan border forces in the Chaman district of Balochistan.9 Recently, the two exchanged fire at the Torkham crossing in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), an important trading point, which led to the closure of the crossing for few days.10 An editorial in Urdu daily, Nawa-i-Waqt summed it up well: “Since the coming of the Afghan Taliban interim government in Afghanistan, the issues that Pakistan was facing from the country have increased.”11
In the wake of the attack on the Zhob garrison in Balochistan in July 2023 in which nine Pakistani soldiers were killed, the Pakistan Army chief went to the extent of citing the Doha agreement and warned the Afghan Taliban saying that “the involvement of Afghan nationals in terrorist incidents in Pakistan is detrimental to regional peace, stability and deviation from the Doha Peace Agreement by the interim Afghan government”.12 The Afghan Taliban rejected the claim of Pakistan that the Afghan territory was being used by terrorists against Pakistan and reprimanded the Pakistan Army chief saying that Afghanistan was not responsible for Pakistan’s “failure to maintain security”.13 With their contradictory positions on these matters, there remains little space for policy formulation to deal with terrorism in Pakistan or settle the long pending border issue between the two countries. Negotiations and visits by high officials to the capitals of the two countries have not yielded any positive results so far.14
While some in Pakistan would argue that Islamabad needs to carry out strikes inside the Afghan territory to flush out alleged TTP hideouts,15 any such action will have implications for both the economy and security of Pakistan as they remain liked with Afghanistan. More importantly, that would not address the issue of alleged Afghan nationals in Pakistan getting involved in terror attacks. In fact, that would increase the chances of such attacks once Pakistan strikes Afghans inside Afghan territory.
Rhetoric and Reality
The Pakistan Army is fighting an amorphous war not in the literal sense; but in the sense that the enemy that they fight is not clearly defined. The security establishment in the country has kept the enemy in the ‘grey zone’, to use a technical term. The enemy like the TTP and others (say Al Qaeda) are known for their radical religious/sectarian outlook. When they face a crackdown from the security forces of Pakistan some of them enter the grey zone, and given the factor of deniability and Afghan Taliban’s empathy for them, they enjoy the goodwill of the Taliban cadre at the ground level which helps them survive and operate in the borderlands. Even if the Taliban were helped by Pakistan during their two-decade-long resistance against international forces, the new regime in Kabul appears sceptical of Pakistan’s wholehearted support for them and feels that Pakistan had helped them more out compulsion to safeguard its strategic interests than because of its love for Taliban’s ideology. The Taliban were at best willing to broker talks between the TTP and Pakistan which failed due to Pakistani reluctance to meet some of the core demands of the TTP. Pakistan did release some of the hardcore TTP members as a gesture of seriousness to pursue the talks but the TTP appeared unwilling to take the talks forward.
For the Pakistan Army, however, it is hard to acknowledge this reality. It is not willing to go after all armed jihadi elements, who it thinks can act as a strategic asset for it at times. The political elite’s tactic so far has been to avoid criticism and thus create ambiguity about the nature and intentions of various religious extremist groups. Some in Pakistan have painstakingly tried to maintain a distinction between the TTP, Da’esh and Al-Qaeda and ignored their possible collaboration,16 disregarding the fact that any comparison of this sort would mean these outfits have something in common. Even the then Interior Minister Nisar Ali Chaudhry said in November 2014 that “a majority of the militant elements that constitute the TTP are not against the state of Pakistan and are not enemies of Pakistan.”17
One of the main reasons for TTP to have survived numerous military operations launched since 2007 to eliminate it and its affiliates is this ambiguous policy Pakistan has adopted over the years on the issue of religious extremists: Operation Zarga Khel (in North Waziristan), Operation Tri-Star (in South Waziristan), Operation Eagle Swoop, Operation Labbaik and Operation Eagle Swoop-II and then Operation Rah-e-Rast and Rah-e-Nijat in May 2009, could not achieve much in terms of eliminating the terrorists or reclaiming the socio-political space from the TTP. In 2014, in the aftermath of the heinous attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar, which changed public opinion against the TTP, Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched which was succeeded by Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad in 2017. These operations were half-hearted and selective in their approach.
Such ambivalence has created the space for religious extremist forces to think that they would not be punitively targeted. There is thus a possibility of the existence of some people who get socialized in such an environment where extremist religious narratives hold sway and then assert their agency independently or at least not under the active command of either Pakistani intelligence or terror groups nurtured by them to gain asymmetric strategic advantage vis-à-vis India. To trace the movement or intentions of such people is difficult, given the number of undocumented Afghan refugees and local religious extremists. They can go to any extent. It is possible that unclaimed attacks like on a mosque in Peshawar in January 2023 that killed over 100, on the JUI-F rally in July in Peshawar that killed over 50, on the Milad-ud-Nabi rally in Mastung killing over 60 may have been carried out by such elements, without fearing or worrying about public backlash. Pakistan has become the playground for such lone-wolves imbued with their zeal to bring Islamic rule to Pakistan.
Victim or Enabler of Terror? Is turn-around possible?
In Tolstoy’s War and Peace Nikolai asks: “Who are they? Why are they running? … To kill me?” The common people in Pakistan are caught up in Nikolai’s kind of dilemma with the menacing spread of the terror attacks in the country. Even the security forces are caught off guard in the wake of such attacks, more because of the ambivalence in the country’s approach towards religious extremism than the lag in military preparedness both vis-à-vis India they want to square up with and vis-à-vis the terror elements they have emboldened over the years, who have chosen to turn against them. In the process, they have turned Pakistan into a nest of terror, that the whole world is talking about. Pakistan’s defence that it has been a victim of terrorism rather than an enabler of terror has fallen on deaf ears.
On the one hand, the terrorists of the TTP or of other groups, have started brazenly killing civilians, even not sparing religious gatherings by attacking mosques and even functions celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s birthday; on the other hand, the governing elite in Pakistan still seems unready to acknowledge that religious radicalism, thanks to their policy of using terrorism as an instrument, has emerged as the biggest security threat to their state. By launching a few more symbolic or tactical military operations, Pakistan cannot defeat terror; it would require an honest admission of its guilt and a total transformation in its policy of engaging with the world.
Dr Nazir Ahmad Mir is Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studie and Analysis (MP-IDSA), New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.