AS I write, the death toll from the Peshawar blast continues to mount. Social media is flooded with horrifying images of blood-spattered religious texts and videos of the victims’ blood flowing over the mosque’s floors. The neighbourhood of Koocha Risaldar is grieving, with most families living nearby having lost family members or friends in the blast.
Sadly, we have been here before. And, may God forbid, we are likely to be here again. This attack will not prompt introspection or a sea change in security policies. In fact, the attack likely heralds worse to come. And it reveals that the social and political fissures that prevented swift action against militancy around a decade ago still run deep.
The militant Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter (IS-K) has claimed responsibility. The group marked its comeback last August with the Kabul airport attack during the Afghan Taliban takeover. The Peshawar suicide bombing confirms it is a force to be reckoned while the Afghan Taliban are in power.
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Although a key rival of the Afghan Taliban, IS-K, like all other regional militant groups, has more space to operate in a poorly governed, militant-sympathetic Afghanistan. The Peshawar attack will likely bolster IS-K’s ranks, presenting it as a credible counterpoint to the Afghan Taliban, with a clear sectarian agenda to boot. Defectors disgruntled with the Afghan Taliban, which since coming to power have to make compromises and soften their hard-line messaging to appeal to the international community, now have an alternative.
Schism is our current default mode.
But it’s not just IS-K that will be carrying out cross-border attacks. The banned TTP is also resurgent. According to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, the TTP carried out 87 attacks in Pakistan in 2021, an increase of 84 per cent from 2020. The group itself claimed 42 attacks in January 2022, after its talks with the government broke down.
Read: TTP still active with up to 5,000 fighters: UN
Militancy of all stripes is resurgent in the region, a long predicted consequence of the Afghan Taliban takeover. The competitive militant landscape will compel groups to carry out more frequent, and increasingly brutal, attacks in an effort to fundraise and win followers and local militant group allegiances. The TTP in 2018 said it would refrain from targeting civilians and focus on security forces, which to a large extent it has done. One wonders, however, in the race for militant rank and file, how long this strategy will hold. The sectarian and more broadly anti-minority agenda, unfortunately, holds appeal for many violent extremist sub-groups.
Pakistan’s state and society are not ready to contend with a militant resurgence. Islamabad’s jubilation about the Afghan Taliban victory a few months ago has already been tempered by the rise in terrorist attacks on our soil. We have been the first country to call out the Afghan Taliban for their inability to manage cross-border militancy. The assumption that the Afghan Taliban would risk alienating allies such as the TTP or Al Qaeda by seeking to contain them has quickly proved misguided.
The muddled narrative extends beyond the Afghan Taliban leadership to other militant groups. Brookings fellow Madiha Afzal last month rightly described the Pakistani state’s approach to the TTP as “ambivalent”, describing the haphazard messaging before, during and after the blundering attempt to talk to the TTP. In contradictory statements from government and security officials, the TTP oscillates between marginalised, misunderstood citizens we can engage and re-assimilate, and an anti-Pakistan ‘menace’ funded by the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies. Inter-militant group rivalry and propaganda compounds state dissimulation. In an ironic twist, in July 2020, the TTP sought to undermine the IS-K by accusing it of being a tool of the establishment, aimed at undermining jihadi movements such as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.
State and policy level ambivalence is unfortunately — and arguably more problematically — echoed in Pakistani society, in the clearest sign that the scourge of violent extremism and militancy will not be easily eradicated, despite the gains of Zarb-i-Azab a bit less than a decade ago.
The public response to the Peshawar attack has highlighted that schism rather than unity is our current default mode. Most indigenous narratives about the attack highlight either ethnic or religious difference. Some have framed the attack as a result of the state’s callous attitude toward religious minorities, particularly Shias. Others perceive it as the (Punjabi-dominated) state’s disdain for Pakhtun lives. And, as always, there are those voices who prefer to point fingers at ever-lurking ‘external forces’.
As long as we are unable to agree that Pakistani bloodshed is unacceptable, and that we need an unequivocal state commitment across all political and geopolitical considerations to protect citizens, we will not be able to fight the menace of militancy.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2022