Part of the solution to Pakistan’s decades-long struggle against terrorism is to confront the embedded mindset behind it.
Terrorist attacks in Pakistan have been on the rise since Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) – the Pakistani Taliban – called off its ceasefire in November 2022.
According to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), December became the deadliest month for the country in over a decade, with 49 attacks resulting in 56 fatalities, including 32 security personnel. Militants carried out 376 terror attacks last year, in which 533 people were killed and 832 others were injured.
The dramatic increase in violence has led to calls for the state to take strong action against the TTP, which is a proscribed terrorist group – and an umbrella organization hosting a variety of Islamist militants groups that operate along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
However, many in Pakistan fail to recognize that the TTP, whose leader has pledged allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, is not just an organization, but rather an ideology that is deeply ingrained in the country’s relatively short history.
TTP reflects a deep-rooted militancy problem that developed during the Cold War era when western-backed groups of Mujahideen fighters were supported in their fight against Soviets in Afghanistan. Although the group mainly operates in Afghanistan, it has remnants in some parts of Pakistan, and this entrenched militant mindset of the Pakistani Taliban has given rise to groups like TTP.
After the suicide attack in Islamabad on 24 December 2022, Pakistani analyst Abdul Basit commented on the attack in a tweet:
“One thing common in these attacks is that they point to the home-grown nature of terrorist attacks. Some of them are externally enabled, the main networks are inside Pak. For instance, for car & motorcycle bombs, explosive experts, logisticians & perpetrators are in Pak.”
When the TTP was formed in 2007, it was merely “an alliance of different like-minded militias,” wrote the late Rahimullah Yusufzai, a senior Pakistani political and security analyst. The group has at times fractured due to various reasons and its splinters have operated quite independently.
When in 2020, the TTP experienced a resurgence, this was importantly not a result of the group becoming a unified and coherent unit again.
Rather, it was a re-grouping of different ‘like-minded’ splinter groups, with the addition of some other established sectarian terror outfits that hold sway in Pakistan’s mainland. The resurgence of the group was led by TTP’s new leader, Noor Wali Mehsud, who is believed to be the chief architect of this revival, and who has publicly voiced support of the Afghan Taliban.
The recent surge in terrorism in the country has caused widespread fear and concern among Pakistanis, who, between 2007 and 2015 and the ‘War on Terror,’ suffered the loss of over 70,000 in deadly terror attacks.
In the years following 2016, the Pakistani military launched large-scale operations to suppress the TTP, which temporarily halted terrorist activities. However, the reappearance of terrorism with renewed force shows that military operations alone were not enough to fully eradicate the problem.
Fighting an ideology
Last year, the government attempted to politically resolve the issue by entering into talks with the group. The discussions failed with the end of ceasefire – which was being observed by both sides while negotiations were underway.
Islamabad had hoped for a straightforward solution to the ongoing problem, but evidently a more complex and multi-faceted approach is needed to address the issue. The TTP should not be treated as a centralized and coherent entity that can be demobilized and integrated into civilian and political life en masse. This is especially the case when the militant organization is foremost understood as representing an ideology.
Jessica Stern and J.M Berger, in the book, ISIS: The State of Terror, argue that extremist and terrorist groups that represent a specific mindset do fade. However, it takes an extraordinarinaly long time for them to be completely dismantled.
As an example, they reference the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a racist terrorist organization in the US that represents a white supremacist ideology. The KKK was replaced by a more violent and extreme racist neo-Nazi movement in the 80s and 90s.
Despite the fact that the terror organization is no longer the center of gravity for the white supremacist movement, it has neither ceased to exist nor has it ceased to carry out plots and violence. The example of the KKK illustrates that an ideology can remain intact, re-sprout with the course of time, and need not stay limited to a particular group.
This has also played out in West Asia, which has witnessed the advent of multiple incarnations of militant Salafism – from the Mujaheddin to Al Qaeda to ISIS – and more recently, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), considered to be ISIS’ off-shoot in Afghanistan.
Consqeuences of collaboration
ISIS-K has been responsible for a number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including the recent attack on Pakistan’s mission in Kabul, and the devastating attack on a Shia mosque in Peshawar in March 2022, which resulted in the deaths of 66 people.
ISIS-K has global aspirations and a support base that transcends state borders. Its activities are likely to have extra-regional consequences that will not only harm Pakistan but also other countries in West and Central Asia.
What is particularly concerning is that ISIS-K has connections with the TTP and many of its commanders have previously served in the TTP’s ranks. Both groups have significantly increased their ability to carry out terrorist attacks, particularly since the Afghan Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan.
Similarly, the group has had ties to Al Qaeda: former TTP commander Asim Umar (now deceased), for instance, was named the emir of Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). This raises concerns that even if TTP were to disintegrate, militant elements could join other regional and global terrorist outfits to reassert themselves and continue to launch terror operations inside Pakistan.
In April 2021, TTP publicly expressed support for a faction of the Barelvi sect called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), which is also registered as a political party. The TLP leadership is notorious for blocking major roads in the country, delivering anti-state speeches, and inciting violence through its large base of followers.
In 2018, more than 100 TLP members were arrested and charged with sedition and terrorism in special anti-terrorism courts. The TTP’s support of a political party that shares its ideology, plus the desire to implement their own version of Sharia Law in the country, raises the possibility of convergence of this mindset in the future.
It could be argued that TTP, which is an umbrella organization for various armed extremist groups, reflects an entrenched militancy problem that has the potential to manifest in different ways – rebranding under different names and symbols in the future – even if the current TTP organization is dissolved.
Influence of the Afghan Taliban
Negotiations between the Pakistani state and TTP were taking place under the auspices of the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan has pressured the latter to take stern actions against TTP’s safe havens in Afghanistan, but the sympathies of the Afghan Taliban toward TTP have become more apparent by their failure to take any meaningful action.
Given that both groups share the same ideological mindset and have collaborated in resistance against the previous Kabul government and foreign troops in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the Afghan Taliban will take action against TTP, as they may want to use such groups as a bargaining chip against Islamabad.
The evolving instability in Afghanistan has so far affected Pakistan, but it is likely to spread to other parts of the region. During the Moscow Format Consultations in November 2022, regional states including Iran, China, Russia, and Pakistan urged the Taliban government to work towards eradicating terrorism and pave the way for an inclusive government in the country.
Defeating the cause of terrorism
As the Afghan economy is in dire straits, it remains a major cause of increasing instability in the country. In an effort to alleviate its economic woes, China recently signed an oil extraction deal with the country. The deal came just a few weeks after an attack on Chinese officials in Kabul.
Although Beijing has yet to officially recognize the Taliban’s rule, it understands the direct impact of an unstable Afghanistan on its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project and its national security.
Pakistan needs to acknowledge that talking to militants is counterproductive to the gains the state has made during its years-long military campaign against them.
An unstable Afghanistan with terrorist safe havens that harm Pakistan is a reality, but a significant part of the problem is the deeply ingrained mindset that has plagued the country as a result of historical regional turmoil. Therefore, the state needs to focus on addressing the fundamental causes of the problem, rather than simply targeting symbols of it.