Pakistan’s complex and evolving security landscape in 2023

Pakistan’s complex and evolving security landscape in 2023

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As 2023 drew to a close, terrorism not only persisted but worsened further in Pakistan, pointing toward a complex and diverse threat landscape. The absence of a coherent and comprehensive counterterrorism policy, Kabul’s reluctance to decisively act against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s sanctuaries, and the deterioration of Pakistan-Afghanistan ties contributed to a volatile security situation. Pakistan confronted a three-front situation from TTP, Baloch insurgents, and Daesh-Khorasan. In the face of these rapidly evolving threats, Pakistan’s counterterrorism and counterinsurgency responses were ad-hoc and inconsistent. In 2024, the country needs a significant overhaul of its internal security framework to mitigate militant and insurgent threats effectively.

While old terrorist trends persisted in 2023, new ones also emerged, bringing into sharp focus the complex nature of threats to Pakistan. Among these, the most potent risk came from TTP, which continued its attacks with impunity from its hideouts in Afghanistan and enjoyed the ideological and logistical support of the Taliban regime in Kabul. While the Afghan interior ministry said it had arrested some 40 TTP militants, the group’s top leadership continued to reside in Afghanistan and plotted attacks against Pakistan. The trend of militant factions pledging allegiance to TTP from different parts of Pakistan continued. So far, more than 40 militant factions have merged with TTP, adding to its operational and organizational strength.

The most alarming development in 2023 was TTP’s daring attack in Chitral to take control of the territory. While the attack was repulsed, TTP showed the intent and capability to gain territorial control in Pakistan’s peripheral areas. This is part of the group’s efforts to evolve from a terrorist to an insurgent group. In its current incarnation, TTP can be classified as a proto-insurgent or a hybrid terrorist group, i.e., a group behaving like an insurgent entity. Despite its selective strategy of hitting hard targets, TTP has no territorial control to be classified as an insurgent group. Still, the group has been trying to influence public opinion through its slick social media propaganda and gain territorial control. Considering the ground incursion in Chitral, TTP could also launch a massive attack in the summer of 2024.

Pakistan’s counterterrorism and counterinsurgency responses were ad-hoc and inconsistent in 2023. In the coming year, the country needs a significant overhaul of its internal security framework to mitigate militant and insurgent threats effectively.

Abdul Basit Khan

Likewise, Daesh-K also emerged as a significant threat to Pakistan’s internal security. Facing a ruthless crackdown from the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, several fighters of Daesh-K relocated to Pakistan’s tribal areas adjacent to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Daesh-K has shown a strong presence in the Bajaur and Mastung districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces, respectively. It is fighting a battle for survival and relevance in Pakistan by targeting rival sects’ religio-political parties. Daesh-K particularly hit political workers and leaders of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazal (JUI-F) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) while calling these attacks part of its “battle against democracy.” Keeping this in mind, Daesh-K may target political rallies and gatherings in Pakistan as electioneering gains momentum ahead of the national polls in February. At the same time, the arrests of Daesh-K-linked female radicals from Lahore and Sheikhupura underscore the group’s ability to make inroads within the local population despite adverse circumstances. Daesh-K is quite adept at exploiting the political, communal, and sectarian fault lines to advance its ideological footprint.

Similarly, the Baloch insurgency showed no signs of abating and drew its strength from the socio-economic grievances of the masses in the southwest due to the enforced disappearances, ethnic disenfranchisement, resource ownership, and political exclusion. The Baloch insurgency suffered a tactical blow in 2023 due to the Baloch Nationalist Army’s chief Gulzar Imam’s arrest and the surrender of another key commander, Sarfraz Bungalzai. The rumors of Baloch separatist groups’ merger to overcome the setbacks from Imam’s arrest and Bungalzai’s surrender also gained traction in 2023. However, the disagreements over the Majeed Brigade, the suicide squad of the Baloch Liberation Army-Jeeyand faction, proved to be a significant stumbling block in a potential merger.
Two new militant groups, Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP), an alleged front group of TTP, and Ansar-ul-Islam (AI), also burst onto Pakistan’s threat landscape. TJP carried out some high-profile suicide attacks in different parts of Pakistan, especially against military installations, and proved to be quite lethal. The AI emerged toward the end of 2023, dispelling the impression that Pakistani militants were operating out of Afghanistan. At the same time, an old militant group, Lashkar-e-Islam (LI), which became dormant in recent years, resumed its activities in 2023 as well and claimed responsibility for some attacks.

Another less pronounced but equally disturbing trend in 2023 was the focus of militant and insurgent groups on the evolving role of women within their respective organizations. For instance, TTP started a separate Urdu-language monthly magazine, Banat-e-Khadijatul Kubra, for women. The periodical reinforced TTP’s misogynist worldview, seeing women as homemakers and nurturers of future generations of militants. In sharp contrast, Baloch insurgents employed female suicide bombers, albeit in low numbers, to hit their targets. Despite their limited number, Baloch women’s participation in insurgency as combatants pointed to their evolving roles within the ethno-separatist insurgency. As outlined above, the arrests of five Daesh-K female militants implied that the terror group continued to have a niche appeal among limited pockets of educated middle and upper-middle-class segments of Pakistani society.

In the current situation, Pakistan’s counterterrorism options range from bad to worse. For instance, if Pakistan, due to the Taliban’s reluctance to act against TTP, extends its counterterrorism operations across the border, it will prove to be counterproductive. The Taliban will perceive it as a violation of its sovereignty and could retaliate violently. On the contrary, if Pakistan tries, yet another time, to reach a negotiated settlement with TTP, it will likely fail again. Irrespective of outcomes, Pakistan will have to evolve its counterterrorism and counterinsurgency framework in a manner that takes a long-term view of the problem.

- The author is a Senior Associate Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. X: @basitresearcher

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