Pakistan and Talibans, a story of love and hate

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A member of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) rehearses flag masting at the mausoleum of Muhammad Ali Jinnah before the Defence Day ceremonies, or Pakistan's Memorial Day, in Karachi, Pakistan September 6, 2020. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro/File Photo

A recent fatal suicide attack on a military post in northwest Pakistan has sparked concerns about the resurgence of armed rebellion in the tribal regions of the country, which have witnessed a significant increase in armed attacks this year.

The little-known group Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP) claimed responsibility for the bombing on December 12 in the Dera Ismail Khan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, bordering Afghanistan. The car bomb attack resulted in the death of at least 23 soldiers and injuries to 34 others.

The TJP’s attacks evoke memories of the series of deadly incidents perpetrated by armed groups led by the Pakistan Taliban, known as the TTP, in the late 2000s. The rise in attacks on security forces raises questions about the reasons behind it and how the Pakistani government and military plan to address the situation.

In the first 11 months of the year, there were 664 attacks of various types across the country, marking a 67% increase compared to the same period in 2022. The majority of these attacks targeted Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces, with almost 93% occurring in these regions. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in particular, has been severely affected, experiencing 416 attacks since November 2022 when the TTP terminated its ceasefire with the government.

While the ideology of the Pakistan Taliban aligns with that of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which currently governs the war-torn country, the groups have distinct goals and operate independently.

Analysts attribute the surge in violence to the unilateral decision by the Pakistan Taliban to end the ceasefire last year, responding to renewed military operations in the region. Their demands include the release of members, the reversal of the tribal region’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and stricter enforcement of their interpretation of Islamic laws.

Despite multiple operations by the Pakistani army since 2002, the TTP has found refuge in Afghanistan due to the porous border. Since its establishment in 2007, the TTP has targeted civilians and law enforcement personnel, resulting in numerous casualties. The group, banned in Pakistan and designated a “terrorist” group by the United States, intensified attacks in response to Pakistani military operations after the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.

The TTP’s deadliest attack occurred in December 2014 at the Army Public School in Peshawar, claiming over 130 student lives. The group also took responsibility for the 2012 shooting of Malala Yousafzai, who later won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2015 and is now a globally recognized girls’ education activist.

Despite being banned, the TTP continues to operate, and the Pakistani military’s response to their attacks has faced criticism for alleged scorched earth tactics, enforced disappearances, and military trials inconsistent with international law.

With the return of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in August 2021, historical ties with the Pakistani security establishment raised expectations of easier management of the TTP. Following the Taliban’s takeover, facilitated meetings between the Pakistani military and the TTP, endorsed by then-Prime Minister Imran Khan, led to a tentative ceasefire and the release of TTP leaders imprisoned by Pakistan. However, low-scale skirmishes persisted, trust eroded, and the TTP unilaterally ended the ceasefire after key leadership changes in Pakistan.

The emergence of the TJP, believed to be affiliated with the TTP, has heightened concerns. TJP, responsible for several major attacks, remains enigmatic, with limited information available on its leadership, members, and locations. While Pakistani authorities claim TJP’s link to TTP, concrete evidence is lacking.

Notably, TJP’s implementation of suicide attacks, involving small groups under the cover of darkness, has intensified the conflict between militants and security forces. In contrast, the regional affiliate of ISIS, ISIS-K, targeted civilians in violent attacks this year, distinct from TTP and TJP’s focus on security personnel.

The tactic of targeting law enforcement personnel, as observed by TTP and TJP, serves to demoralize forces and instill a sense of terror and insecurity. According to many counterterrorism analysts and observers of the violence in the region, a significant failing of the Pakistani government lies in its inability to craft a coherent policy toward Afghanistan. This failure is believed to have contributed to the current situation. The Pakistani army’s strategy was built on the hope that following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, it could control the TTP and prevent attacks in Pakistan. However, this approach, rooted in counterproductive Afghan policies and a lack of counterterrorism capacity, left the government unprepared for the current challenges.

Pakistan is criticized for spending considerable time seeking peace talks without proactively eliminating the threat. Despite the ceasefire, the ongoing skirmishes and the end of the ceasefire have placed Pakistan in a firefighting mode. The peace talks, initiated in late 2021 and facilitated by the Afghan Taliban, involved the TTP demanding the reversal of tribal district mergers and the imposition of its interpretation of Islamic law. However, the demands were rejected by the government, which, in turn, called for the disbandment of the armed group.

Public sentiment in conflict-affected areas remains hostile toward both the military and rebel fighters, complicating counterterrorism efforts. Despite past dialogue attempts, none of the major peace agreements between 2007 and 2014 lasted more than a few months, and military operations were launched in parallel.

Senior Pakistani civilian and military leaders have held multiple high-level meetings with their Afghan counterparts this year, but the lack of clarity on Pakistan’s approach persists. Accusations of Afghan soil harbouring fighters, threats of cross-border attacks, and expelling Afghans without documents have added to tensions. The Taliban views the increasing attacks in Pakistan as an internal matter, attributing them to Pakistan’s involvement in the US-led “war on terror.”

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