Since the victory of the Afghan Taliban in August 2021, and contrary to the fond hopes of our establishment that their ‘friends’ now ensconced in Kabul would help restrain the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Pakistan has seen an uptick in terrorist attacks and show of armed force by the group in Swat and the former FATA tribal regions.
In the light of this development, one must question COAS General Qamar Bajwa’s claim in his address at the Pakistan Military Academy Kakul that the army had successfully turned the tide against terrorism. In 2014, in the wake of the massacre of children and teachers in the terrorist attack on the Army Public School Peshawar, the military’s Zarb-e-Azb offensive, as this writer had pointed out at the time, had merely ‘exported’ the problem (to Afghanistan), not scotched the snake.
The many-headed hydra of terrorism with which Pakistan has been afflicted for decades since our involvement in the Afghan wars, now appears to be raising its head/s again with a vengeance.
First some historical perspective. TTP came into being in 2007 in reaction to the Lal Masjid incident in Islamabad. It was composed of tribal areas Pashtun groups closely associated with the Afghan wars, first with the Mujahideen, later the Taliban. There is also some evidence of an alliance with, and mentoring by, al Qaeda.
When so-called Islamic extremism first reared its ugly head in the former FATA after 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan, these Pakistani jihadists fell out with the Pakistani state for whom they had previously fought in Afghanistan and Kashmir over its support for the US’s War on Terror. They provided safe havens and sanctuary to al Qaeda, Afghan Taliban and other militant elements fleeing Afghanistan. Under US pressure, General Musharraf’s regime started a crackdown on such groups starting 2004.
These suppression efforts proved halting and contradictory, and were often punctuated by ‘peace’ agreements with the militant groups that more often than not were broken by the latter. In their early campaigns, the terrorists did not hesitate to carry out indiscriminate attacks on civilians and religious minorities such as Shias. They also killed hundreds of tribal maliks (chieftains) who constituted the state’s ‘political management’ structure in the tribal areas, an arrangement inherited from British colonialism.
Reportedly on al Qaeda’s advice, by 2018 the TTP had changed tack to the extent of ‘abandoning’ pan-Islamism (i.e. denying any ‘expansionist’ plans for other regions, concentrating on Pakistan alone) and redirecting their attacks away from civilians and religious minorities and towards military and intelligence personnel. They have also, particularly since the Afghan Taliban’s ascent to power last year, redoubled their attacks on the border and inside the country as a whole, as well as conducting a show of arms in areas such as Swat and the tribal areas.
Given this resurgence, it was exceedingly strange that the military establishment entered into negotiations with the TTP (with the Haqqani Network’s facilitation). These talks were neither officially announced nor was parliament or the public taken into confidence. A tentative ceasefire soon broke down on the unacceptability of the TTP’s demands for their version of sharia to be enforced in Pakistan, a reversal of the merger of FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, release of TTP prisoners and, as icing on the cake, no sports for women. Although these demands were inherently unacceptable to the state, the last demand rendered a women’s sports festival in Gilgit-Baltistan ‘suspect’, and it could only be held in muted fashion after it was renamed a ‘gala’.
As part of its refashioned strategy, the TTP has issued statements of support for the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), despite the fact that the latter is a Barelvi movement while the TTP is Deobandi. This flexibility is an effort on the part of the TTP to remain relevant in the mainstream political discourse.
Negotiations with the TTP began under Imran Khan’s government, in line with his long held view that terrorist militancy could not be handled by military means and had to rely on negotiations. However, what Imran Khan failed to realise, and has yet to realise, is that religious extremists, terrorists and fanatics are impervious to reason. In the past, if they have negotiated agreements for ceasefires, these proved to be mere tactical measures that were abandoned as soon as the religious extremists felt they could return to the offensive. This has been the pattern since 2004, including such edifying episodes as the terrorists playing football with decapitated soldiers’ heads.
The critical mistake the military establishment made during the Afghan wars was to allow the Pashtun tribesmen to act as facilitators if not fighters for the Afghan Mujahideen and then Taliban. It was inevitable that cross-border Pashtun solidarity, not to mention closeness of political views would radicalise our tribesmen in the same vein as the Mujahideen and Taliban.
Pakistan is having to potentially pay the price for this error in horrendous terms once again, given that we are currently experiencing the highest rate of terrorist attacks for the last 5-6 years.
The people of Swat and other regions that have experienced TTP terrorism in the past are literally up in arms at the seeming neglect of the threat once again posed by the resurgent TTP and are demanding action by the state, failing which they say they will be compelled to take up arms themselves against the ‘intruders’. The military establishment would be well advised to take parliament and the country into confidence on the state of affairs surrounding the resurgence of the TTP and chalk out a fresh plan to nip the evil in the bud, something neglected in the past, exacting a horrendous cost, and likely to exact an even higher cost if not carried out today.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2022