THE terrorist attack on a police check post in the heart of the federal capital earlier this week was a dangerous happening. It is good that the security agencies have taken the incident very seriously (they should be equally concerned about the security of other cities such as Lahore that witnessed a blast on Thursday). But what is questionable is the state’s penchant for talking to the notorious banned group that claimed the attack. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has escalated terrorist attacks in Pakistan since the Afghan Taliban took power in Afghanistan, and the interior minister has indicated that the trend may continue in the coming weeks.
Last year too, two terrorist attacks were recorded in Islamabad in which the banned TTP killed three policemen and injured a couple of others. Indeed, the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi have witnessed sporadic terrorist violence in recent years despite perceptible security. During the last two years, the TTP and its factions have carried out 11 terrorist attacks in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, resulting in the deaths of 13 security, mainly police, officials. This week’s attack in Islamabad also targeted policemen. The second worrying aspect is that in the past the TTP remained active mainly in the outskirts of the federal capital, but the latest attack was reported from a busy sector in the heart of Islamabad.
The attack reveals the intention of the terrorist group to create fear. If more such attacks happen, barricades and check posts on the roads of Islamabad will be brought back. Only recently, a sense of security had returned when the number of security check posts was reduced to a minimum. Though Islamabad has a functional safe city mechanism, the security of the federal capital remains critical and security departments can take any measures to counter threats.
It will not be surprising if Islamabad comes under increased security surveillance when a so-called pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul is reluctant to hand over or act against terrorists causing insecurity in this country.
The Afghan Taliban are not fully cooperating with Pakistan in dealing with the TTP.
Some media reports indicate that certain Afghan Taliban leaders are trying to restrict the movement of the TTP leaders and impose an arms embargo on the group. But the situation on the ground is different and the TTP’s confidence is gradually improving. Meanwhile, Pakistan has reportedly initiated another round of peace talks with the TTP through a tribal jirga, which can only be interpreted as extending one more olive branch to the terrorists. One wonders why security institutions are obsessed with talking to the TTP, especially when the latter has taken a hard stance on talks and continues its attacks against Pakistan.
The killing of Mufti Khalid Balti, a former spokesperson of the TTP, has further increased the trust deficit between negotiators from both sides and their guarantors. In that context, if the mantra of talks is merely a tactic to create rifts in the TTP leadership then the cost is very high and still may not be enough to eliminate the threat. The TTP will continue to cause damage to Pakistan, and over time, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan will learn the tactics to avert pressure from Pakistan. After all, the TTP is their ideological brigade and shares the same view of establishing an Islamic order of governance.
Security institutions have to carefully craft the approaches to deal with groups like the TTP and Al Qaeda which are under the protection of the Taliban regime. The TTP is not only a major actor of violence in Pakistan, it is also a facilitator of the regional operations of Al Qaeda and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Al Qaeda has maintained its ties with the Afghan Taliban and has reportedly also helped the TTP recover and regroup in recent years; some Al Qaeda-aligned Pakistani groups even joined the TTP. In April 2021, CNN claimed, based on its interviews with two Al Qaeda operatives, that the group would step up its operations in the region after the US exit from Afghanistan. The report claimed that the group was planning a comeback by relying on its partnership with the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
Any probable operational alliance between the TTP and Al Qaeda or with ETIM against Chinese interests in Pakistan can prove lethal and cause a diplomatic crisis. The TTP can overcome its internal differences and restructure its networks. The group has seen many crises but has not lost its sting. It was involved in 87 terrorist attacks in 2021, an 84 per cent increase over its attacks across Pakistan the year before. Apart from these, most of the cross-border attacks from Afghanistan in 2021 (12 out of 14) were also perpetrated by the TTP. The geographical spread and number of TTP attacks in 2021 indicate that while the group carried out most of the assaults in former Fata, it also showed it had a presence in northern Balochistan and the Rawalpindi-Islamabad area.
One can imagine the potential lethality of the group which it has already displayed. Its core strengths include its close association with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and a narrative that still attracts youth from the peripheries and religious institutions. The Afghan Taliban have proved themselves a liability for Pakistan and have been negatively affecting the country’s counterterrorism policies. They are not fully cooperating with Pakistan in dealing with the TTP, nor are they collaborating with it to secure Pakistan’s western border.
The TTP itself and Pakistan’s tendency to negotiate with it are encouraging other terrorist groups. The militant Islamic State group’s so-called Khorasan chapter has also become active in Pakistan, where it carried out multiple attacks in 2021 on Hazara Shias, alleged Afghan Taliban members and associated religious scholars, as well as political leaders/workers in Balochistan and KP. Several of its associates were arrested from parts of Sindh and Punjab in multiple search operations conducted by law enforcement during the year.
Pakistan has to devise a different approach to deal with the TTP threat. A timely change of course can save many precious lives and damage to the country.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2022