What is Pakistan’s threat landscape as US exits Afghanistan?
As the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is nearly complete, the implications of the development on Pakistan’s internal security landscape are becoming evident with a slight uptick in terrorist incidents. Arguably, the triumphant narrative of the US defeat by the Taliban in Afghanistan will serve as a source of strength and inspiration for anti-Pakistan militant groups, particularly the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). TTP and its various factions will not only try to grow from strength to strength in Afghanistan, contrary to the misleading popular perception of their curtailment, but they will also endeavor to spread and entrench their networks in Pakistan. TTP is already on the rebound in its erstwhile strongholds of the ex-FATA region, now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and some parts of Balochistan.
Since the Army Public School (APS) Peshawar attack in December 2014, Pakistan has come a long way in its fight against militancy. These counter-terrorism achievements have come after sacrificing over 70,000 precious lives and a whopping $123 billion in economic losses. However, these gains are at the risk of being reversed if the existing counterterrorism and counter-extremism frameworks are not revised, keeping in view the evolving geopolitical situation in Afghanistan and how that impacts Pakistan.
The recent spate of terrorist attacks targeting the Serena Hotel, Quetta, the Johar Town residence of incarcerated Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed in Lahore and the bus of the Chinese workers in Upper Kohistan district, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, exposes the loopholes in the internal security framework and counter-terrorism intelligence. In all three attacks, the Vehicular Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED) were used. These attacks were strategically planned, hitting high-value targets. While the Johar Town and Dasu Dam bombings remain unclaimed, the Serena Hotel attack was half-claimed by TTP. After claiming the attack in full, TTP partially retracted after realizing that the Chinese ambassador was staying at the Serena Hotel-- perhaps from the fear of an intense counter-terrorism backlash from the Pakistan Army.
The return of the VBIEDs in high profile attacks in Pakistan after a hiatus of six years is concerning. The VBIEDs, just like suicide terrorism, are strategic weapons in terrorist groups’ repertoire. They underscore the high-end and sophisticated operational capabilities of the groups. Furthermore, in Pakistan’s context, VBIEDs are not cheap, and their preparation involves explosive experts, automobile mechanics and logisticians arranging and transporting them to the attack sites. This makes three outcomes obvious: a) terrorists have formed new networks in Pakistan, b) they are well funded, and c) they have training centres where such skills are being taught and imparted in Afghanistan.
Another linked but separate trend that Pakistan’s concerned security institutions should closely watch is the use of explosive-laden drones by militant and insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Indian-administered Kashmir. According to a UN report, the Taliban carried out 12 drone attacks in Afghanistan in 2020. More recently, the Taliban used drones while capturing several districts in the northern and western parts of Afghanistan. Likewise, some Kashmiri fighters used two drones of low-intensity explosives to target an Indian airbase. The use of drones by terrorist and insurgent groups in the region is gaining traction and the same skillset can also travel to TTP and its affiliated factions. This is an area that requires closer monitoring and attention.
Though Pakistan’s counterterrorism gains were impressive, they were fragile and reversible. In that sense, the lull period between 2015 and 2020 characterized the absence of violence rather than the presence of peace. Perhaps, the lull in violence was confused with peace, resulting in complacency and negligence.
Abdul Basit Khan
If Afghanistan slides into a civil war, the militant networks operating in and out of the country will experiment with emerging technologies and hone their harmful use to maximize their disruptive advantages. Commercially available drones are cheap and easy to modify technology. Daesh has employed drone-laden bombs to great effect in Iraq and Syria against its adversaries. The induction of drone technology by Pakistani terrorist groups, just like social media, is a matter of when, not if.
Though the blowback of Afghan unrest following US withdrawal from that country is inevitable, recent attacks indicate operational gaps in counter-terrorism policies and intelligence. The national consensus forged after the 2014 APS attack to fight the twin threats of extremism and terrorism has somewhat dissipated. Likewise, the fanfare and enthusiasm with which the National Action Plan (NAP), the twenty-point counterterrorism roadmap, was being implemented have also gone missing.
The NAP needs to be revised, keeping in view the existing security environment and factoring in progress, or the lack thereof, on the 20 action items identified in 2015. For instance, the Karachi operation has been completed and the illegal SIM cards have been banned in Pakistan. These points should be removed, and the new ones should be included. In contrast, other points such as counter-terror financing, the madrassa reform and tackling the Afghan refugee crisis should be retained, among others.
After the elapse of the first National Internal Security Policy (NISP, 2014-2018), a new policy framework NISP (2019-2023) was devised which is gathering dust currently. Both NAP and NISP (2019-2023) need political ownership and direction from the current political dispensation. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) government can merge the two documents to develop its internal security policy. In June, the formulation of the National Intelligence Coordination Committee, the liaison body for the country’s spy agencies, is a welcome step.
Though Pakistan’s counterterrorism gains were impressive, they were fragile and reversible. In that sense, the lull period between 2015 and 2020 characterized the absence of violence rather than the presence of peace. Perhaps, the lull in violence was confused with peace, resulting in complacency and negligence. For instance, phrases like Pakistan has won its war on terror, from victim to victor, terrorism to tourism highlight the underlying complacent mindset. The twin threats of terrorism and extremism are long-term risks and need institutionalised planning and structural responses. While states respond to tangible risks of terrorism, it requires a whole-of-state-and-society approach to overcome the intangible threat of extremism.
– The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.