The Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, twenty years after their ouster by U.S. troops. During their war against the US-led coalition forces, Pakistan remained under immense pressure for allegedly abetting the Afghan Taliban. Nonetheless, it was ultimately Pakistan that played the key role in bringing peace back to Afghanistan by facilitating all the stakeholders to sit on the dialogue table. Therefore, the government and people of Pakistan had attached high hopes that after the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, they would prevail upon the terrorist organisations operating against Pakistan from Afghanistan’s soil and help Pakistan to completely eliminate the scourge of terrorism. However, to Pakistan’s dismay, not much has changed and at present Pakistan is experiencing a return of terrorism despite a twenty year long and successful war against it. Needless to mention that it came at the cost of almost 80,000 human casualties, and economic losses of $126.79 billion since the 9/11 attacks, accepting and bearing millions of Afghan refugees; besides, enduring immeasurable socio-psycho damages and miseries suffered by mass immigration from the war torn region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan international borders.
Since 2001, the military has launched a series of military offensives against terrorist groups in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The offensive brought peace in those areas and the rest of the country. Many terrorists belonging to various terrorist groups were killed. However, some militants managed to flee to Afghanistan. From Afghanistan, those militants continue to launch attacks on Pakistan military posts and even civilians located near the border in connivance with Indian RAW, Afghan NDS and troops. In 2019, the United States Department of Defense claimed that about 3,000 to 5,000 terrorists belonging to TTP are in Afghanistan. Pakistan officials repeatedly informed the world that India and Afghanistan were supporting terrorism in Pakistan; a fresh dossier was shared with diplomats on 14 December 2022. In 2017, Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah admitted that Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had a foothold in Afghanistan. In 2016, Latif Mehsud gave a public video confession during which he claimed that Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies were responsible for supporting the TTP and other militant groups against Pakistan. The NDS officials have openly admitted to their involvement with Tehreek-e-Taliban as was the case with the Indian national security advisor and some other BJP ministers who openly claimed that they would turn Balochistan and KP areas akin to Indian occupied Kashmir for Pakistan. The arrest of Surbajeet Singh and Indian RAW serving officer Kulbahasn Yadev and confessions by him and his hauled up terrorists network operating from Iran for years laid bare Indian multi-pronged attack on Pakistan and connivance of the neighbouring countries.
The revival of terrorism in Pakistan poses a significant threat to the people of Pakistan. The current wave of terrorism is believed to have started in 2000 and peaked during 2009. Since then, it has drastically declined as a result of military operations conducted by the Pakistan army. According to South Asian Terrorism Portal Index (SATP), terrorism in Pakistan had declined by 89% in 2017. Balochistan alone accounted for 48.29% of Pakistan’s total terrorism-linked fatalities in 2021. In 2012, the Pakistani leadership sat down to sort out solutions for dealing with the menace of terrorism and in 2013, political parties unanimously reached a resolution at the All Parties Conference (APC), stating that negotiation with the militants should be pursued as their first option to counter terrorism. With the terrorists attacks continuing in late 2013 the political and military leadership in Pakistan initiated a military operation against terrorists, which was named “Operation Zarb-e-Azb”; a joint military offensive against various militant groups, including the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jundallah, al-Qaeda, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the so called Haqqani network. The operation was launched on June 15, 2014, in North Waziristan as a renewed effort against militancy in the wake of the June 8 attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, for which the TTP and the IMU claimed responsibility. It has been described as turning point in the war on terrorism. The operation was successful and Pakistan experienced sharp decline in terrorism since the launch of the operation. Nevertheless, it was well established that as long as the Pakistan-Afghanistan border was not sealed by fencing and regular monitoring by surveillance radars, armed drones, troops and posts on ground backed up by attack helicopters and air force, the flood gates would remain open for the terrorists, drugs, weapons and human smuggling cartels.
Afghanistan has always been a safe ‘sanctuary’ for Tehreek-e-Taliban. Mullah Fazlullah and his followers have been living in Afghanistan since 2009 in Kunar and Nuristan province of Afghanistan. However, the U.S. military and ISAF never targeted him. Many other militants groups like Lashkar-e-Islam and other factions of Tehrik-i-Taliban were also allowed to live in Afghanistan. Now once again TTP and all other groups are being launched by NDS and RAW with specific targeting of the Pakistan army, law enforcement agencies, Chinese and other foreigners working on development projects in Pakistan with evil eyes on the CPEC and other development projects. Kabul’s consistent refusal to accept the Durand Line as the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan has triggered the recent clashes between their security forces, and remains a key driver of tensions, undermining trust and provoking enmity. Moreover, the new Afghan rulers are grappling with numerous governance challenges in terms of international recognition, humanitarian aid, basic healthcare, women’s education, and infrastructure development, as well as countering the terrorism threat from ISIS-Khorasan Province (ISKP). The Afghan Taliban’s military victory in Afghanistan has also had an inspirational effect on those who seek to impose their narrow minded version of sharia law in Pakistan. Nevertheless, more than anything else, it is the weak inner front due to worst political polarisation, economic instability and chaos in Pakistan, which is encouraging the foes and frenemies alike to exploit the situation by breathing a new life in the same old proxies and sleeper cells. While the onus of putting your own house in order and handling the political and diplomatic front shall remain with the incumbent political government; once again, the Pakistan army and para military forces have to strike back on the re-rising threat of terrorism with an iron fist. It is well within their capability of the army to eliminate the scourge of terrorism once and for all provided that it is fully backed up by the government and the people of Pakistan disregarding misplaced monetary, ethnic, factional, tribal, ancestral or religious affinities and hidden interests of the powerful elite. I have always considered Government indulging in dialogue with terrorists and ceasefire as a sign of weakness and kid gloves treatment, which does not behove well for a nuclear armed country with the most powerful and battle hardened Army. The example of Turkey going after PKK terrorists beyond borders despite international pressure should serve us as a good pointer. The cowardly attack by indirect fire in Chaman Balochistan on Sunday December 11, 2022, killing seven innocent civilians and wounding dozens by Afghan security forces again call for fierce retaliation to silence the dirty hired guns of mercenaries instead of showing mercy. Besides, we need to fathom as to why Afghanistan is unable to create the similar troubles and blackmail the other border sharing countries like Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China. The return of refugees and cleansing of our society of all illegal aliens including Afghans with fake or bought CNIC and passports must be a top most priority for the ministry of interior and all national intelligence agencies. It has been well established that Pakistan is likely to remain a target of hybrid or 5th generation warfare. As long as the ruling elite continues to use or misuse the extremist groups for shortsighted gains, any meaningful top-down strategy is least likely to get fully realised despite comprehensive National Internal Security Policy 2014-18 (NISP),which is already overdue for updating in view of the last announced National Security Policy (NSP 2022: A Consensus Document?). The Government of Pakistan needs to capitalise on the successes gained by the army, law enforcerment and intelligence by rendering supreme sacrifices by civilians and men in uniform alike without further delay through a comprehensive approach under direct supervision of National Security Committee and through a holistic approach as adopted by other developed countries. It is surely the sacred blood of martyrs that has cleansed and safeguarded our country against so many internal ills afflicting our society and external conspiracies and acts of war and terror. Nevertheless, minimising the loss of extremely precious lives of our troops and civilians by even better intelligence, enhanced counter intelligence and application of a swift military retaliatory capability at the bases of terrorists is the moot point for penning down this paper.
Saleem Qamar Butt
The writer is a retired senior army officer with experience in international relations, military diplomacy and analysis of geo-political and strategic security issues