New terror wave in Pakistan’s restive borderlands

New terror wave in Pakistan’s restive borderlands

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Pakistan has been confronting terrorism mainly in the provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which share long and complex borders with Iran and Pakistan, for more than two decades in varying intensity by a variety of ethnic, sectarian, and religious militants. Like a festering wound, multiple insurgencies close to the Western border, often spilling over into other areas of the country, remain a constant source of insecurity and instability. Over the past decade and a half, Pakistan has launched counter-insurgency operations, expanded security infrastructure, and carried out fundamental reforms, like merging the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into KPK and erecting a fence along the border with Afghanistan, which is in progress along the Iran border as well. Using new technologies and refined information systems, it has been conducting intelligence-based operations throughout the country, targeting suspected terrorists and their leaders and busting their sanctuaries in remote and inaccessible areas. Yet, there is no end to surprise attacks against security forces operating checkpoints in the tribal districts, police stations, even in the settled areas, and suicide attacks against civilian targets. Terror incidents, according to the South Asian Terrorism Portal, increased by roughly 43 percent in 2023 over the previous year. In 527 attacks, the casualties were 386 civilians, 532 security personnel and 584 militants. The trend of terror attacks in 2024 has been alarming, with more than 148 events in the first two-half months, killing 121 civilians, 123 members of security forces, including officers, and 137 terrorists. 

Aggressive counter-insurgency efforts have pushed the militant groups more in numbers into Afghanistan, where Tehreek-Taliban-Pakistan (TTP), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and Daesh-Khorasan have found protection and sanctuary in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The TTP was already there with most of the leaders, militant commanders, and fighters as ethnic and ideological allies of the Afghan Taliban during the American-led coalition war. The expectation in Pakistan was that since it had provided safe hiding places to Afghan Taliban leaders, the famous Quetta Shoura, their families and militias, and even logistical support in their resistance when in power, that would not house the enemies of Pakistan. The proxy support by India to the TTP and Baloch militant group, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), by the elements of the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul and New Delhi’s growing influence within it, were some of the primary reasons for Pakistan covertly assisting the Afghan Taliban. 

Islamabad got a rude awakening when the Taliban government refused to arrest, evict, or hand over the TTP leaders allegedly involved in directing and conducting militant attacks in Pakistan. Instead, the frequency of these attacks and losses on the Pakistani side has increased immensely. There have been audacious attempts by TTP and Daesh-K to cross the Afghan border and engage security forces. In recent years, the BLA and its affiliated Baloch militant groups have established their training camps, bases and operational centers across the Pakistan-Iran borderlands and have been launching attacks from Iranian soil.

Fear is growing that with parts of the region already de-stabilized by proxy militia groups, Pakistan, Central Asia, and China’s Xinjiang region, may be following. 

Rasul Bakhsh Rais

With political instability and an economic downturn, Pakistan faces severe security threats from transnational militants hiding in the border regions of Iran and Afghanistan. Pakistan seems to have exhausted diplomatic means to persuade the Taliban regime, which no country in the world has recognized as yet, and the Iranian government, which Western nations have sanctioned very heavily for supporting a variety of proxy groups in the broader Middle East region aligned with its geopolitical objectives. Fear is growing that with parts of the Middle East already de-stabilized by proxy militia groups, Pakistan, Central Asia, and China’s Xinjiang region, may be following. 

The history of this region shows that transnational networks of militants have found weak and unstable governments vulnerable to promoting their militant mindset with similar groups aligned with their militant ideology. With the congregation of these groups in Afghanistan and along the border with Iran, the stability and security of the entire region is at risk.

Realizing the impending dangers, Pakistan has adopted a more aggressive posture toward Iran and Afghanistan and, at home, employed more coercive means against the BLA, TTP, and their affiliates. It carried out a retaliatory strike against Baloch militants inside Iran on January 18 and has conducted several operations inside Afghanistan, more recently on March 18, targeting TTP commanders. This was in retaliation to an attack on a border post in the region in which seven Pakistani soldiers, including a Lt. Col. and a Captain, lost their lives. 

Reacting to this, Afghan forces have responded by firing mortars and rockets and shelling border villages. Very often, it is not only the civilians on both sides who suffer, but also border trade. Transnational militancy requires transnational cooperation among regional states, mutual security guarantees, and a re-confirmation of the principles of non-intervention. 

- Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).
Twitter: @RasulRais 

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