The fight for Pakistan’s heart and soul: Internal security challenges in 2022
Against the backdrop of the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, 2022 saw the resurgence of terrorism in Pakistan. A 52 percent surge in terrorist attacks was observed in Pakistan between August 2021 and August 2022. Pakistani security forces bore the brunt of these attacks, particularly Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s police which lost around 120 personnel.
In hindsight, the decision to resume talks with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in June, despite their collapse in December 2021, proved disastrous. It allowed TTP to strengthen and spread its network in Pakistan as noted in the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA)’s December report. In November, TTP unsurprisingly called off the June cease-fire and directed its fighters to resume their attacks across Pakistan.
According to the United Nations Security Council’s July report, the TTP has benefited the most from the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. It had a rejuvenating impact on TTP, enabling it to swell its ranks and grow its organizational network across the border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and beyond. Apart from the ill-conceived peace talks, the Bagram and Pul-e-Charkhi prison breaks freeing thousands of TTP militants and mergers of various Pakistani militant factions into TTP also account for its resurgence. The unifications of various Pakistani militant groups into TTP that started in 2020 also continued in 2022. As many as seven militant factions merged with TTP in 2022 including the Commander Zarrar group from Bannu, Ezzatullah Kheyali group from North Waziristan, Tipu Gul Marwat’s faction from Lakki Marwat and Aslam Baloch group from Noshki, Balochistan. Similarly, associates of militant commanders Jameel Madakhel, Saeedullah and Ahmed joined TTP from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s North Waziristan, Lakki Marwat and Kurram tribal districts, respectively.
Likewise, the Baloch separatist groups showed signs of tactical sophistication in 2022 and occasionally ventured out of the restive Balochistan province to hit their targets. Two prominent attacks in point are the Baloch Nationalist Army (BNA)’s motorcycle bomb blast in Lahore’s Anarkali Market in January and the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA)-Majeed Brigade’s suicide assault against Karachi University’s Confucian Center in April. This year, Baloch separatists engaged in some new tactics as well, such as BLA’s daring gun-and-bomb assaults against the paramilitary Fronter Corps’ camps in Noshki and Panjgur districts. Likewise, BLA’s militants also stormed a couple of FC checkpoints in different areas of the province, something not seen in previous years. On two occasions, BLA also kidnapped Pakistani security officials from Ziarat and Harnai districts in a bid to negotiate prisoners’ release without much success.
Unfortunately, Pakistan’s hard-earned counter-terrorism gains between 2015 and 2020 have been compromised due to the ill-conceived policy of talking to the TTP.
Abdul Basit Khan
In May, Baloch insurgents suffered a tactical setback when Gulzar Imam one of the three main faces of the current spate of insurgency was arrested from Turkiye where he landed from Iran. It is important to mention that Gulzar was the head of the newly formed BNA. Later, he was relocated to Pakistan for further investigations. He was very active in Balochistan’s Makran region. The information extracted from his investigation enabled Pakistani security institutions to weaken the insurgent networks in the Makran region. However, Gulzar’s arrest will not have a major impact on the Baloch insurgency.
The most worrying trend in 2022 was the expansion of suicide terrorism in Pakistan following its revival in 2021. Concerningly, militant groups across the threat spectrum, including TTP, Gul Bahagdur Group, Daesh-Khorasan and BLA-Majeed Brigade, are engaging in suicide attacks. Suicide terrorism is directly proportional to conflict escalation and vice versa. As the security situation in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has worsened, suicide attacks have increased adjacently.
Pakistan’s ties with the Taliban regime also deteriorated in 2022 against the backdrop of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s killing in a US drone strike in Kabul in July. The Taliban blamed Pakistan for allegedly providing its airspace to the US for the drone attack. On its part, Pakistan has been demanding the Taliban regime to make sure that TTP does not use Afghan soil for terrorism in Pakistan. The fencing of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has also been a constant source of tensions between the two sides often resulting in border flare ups and closures.
On the contrary, US-Pakistan ties which touched an all-time low upon the Taliban’s return to power have witnessed a steady improvement. The two sides have revived counter-terrorism cooperation against the residual threat of transnational terrorism in Afghanistan. For instance, in December, the US included TTP’s deputy chief Qari Amjad alongside Al-Qaeda in the Indian sub-continent chief Osama Mahmood and his deputy Atif Yahyha Ghori in its designated list of global terrorists. Likewise, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) Chief Michael Eric Kuriilla’s December 14-16 visit to Pakistan was also focused on counterterrorism. During his trip, other than meeting Pakistan’s new army chief General Asim Munir at the General Headquarters, he also visited the Pakistan-Afghanistan border’s Torkham crossing where he was given a briefing on border management and Pakistan’s counterterrorism policy. Going forward, the more the US-Pakistan counterterrorism cooperation will intensify, the more Pakistan-Taliban ties will deteriorate.
In October, Pakistan came off the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s enhanced monitoring list after successfully implementing two action plans. Since 2008, Pakistan has been thrice placed on FATF’s enhanced monitoring list from 2008-2010, 2012-2015 and 2018-2022. During the last four years, Pakistan has considerably improved its legislative and policy structures against terrorism financing and money-laundering. However, it remains a work-in-progress.
Against the backdrop of rising terrorism, the Parliament’s National Security Committee (NSC) in October decided to revitalize the counterterrorism infrastructure at the provincial and federal levels. The NSC also decided to reconstitute the apex committees which were formed after the 2014 Peshawar School massacre. The NSC also gave NACTA a lead role in the formulation of a new counterterrorism strategy looking into issue of inter-institutional cooperation and coordination.
Unfortunately, Pakistan’s hard-earned counter-terrorism gains between 2015 and 2020 have been compromised due to the ill-conceived policy of talking to the TTP. Pakistan’s new army chief has his work cut out for him. A new military offensive is required to downgrade and eliminate the reconstituted terrorist networks in the country. At the same time, equal attention should also be paid to undermine the extremist ideologies of these groups which fuel their recruitment campaigns. This is a fight for Pakistan’s heart and soul, we must not lose it.
- The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter: @basitresearcher