The TTP’s return to the capital last week should not come as a surprise. The warning signs have been growing in intensity since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Through political statements, protests and popular movements such as the PTM, the people of KP have been ringing alarm bells, demanding action, and rejecting the group’s potential resurgence. The fact that these calls have gone largely unheeded indicates Pakistan urgently needs to revisit its centre-periphery dynamic.
The centre-periphery model is used to conceptualise networks, hierarchies and power dynamics in fields ranging from economics to philosophy to politics. Centres are where power, money, industry and dynamic possibility are concentrated; in an economic context, goods and capital accumulate in centres before trickling down to peripheries. But across most disciplines, understandings of centres and peripheries are routinely critiqued and re-evaluated.
There is a growing recognition that the centre-periphery model is often flawed, underestimating the contributions, vitality and necessity of so-called peripheries. Most obviously, in a postcolonial context, it is now widely accepted that the peripheries (ie the colonies) were the key centres of wealth generation, the wings that held aloft the centres of imperial power.
Why is this relevant when it comes to the TTP? Because once again, the group is back in news headlines and subject to strong condemnation because its activities have affected the centre. The suicide attack in Islamabad on Friday was terrifying, but not unexpected.
And so here we are, back to the future.
The so-called peripheries have been increasingly subject to the TTP’s brutality for almost two years. The number of civilian and law-enforcement casualties at the hands of the TTP have more than doubled since the Afghan Taliban came to power in August 2021. KP has been the worst hit: the TTP and its affiliates have carried out 148 attacks against the province’s police since the start of this year.
The peripheries have been appealing to the centre to take action. The calls for a counterterrorist response have come in various guises: in the form of PTM’s demands for dignity, justice and the right to be differentiated from militants that truly threaten Pakistan; in the form of Mohsin Dawar’s warnings that negotiations with the TTP were futile, and would only embolden the group; and in the form of mass anti-militancy protests in Swat.
That these fears, opinions, experiences and demands were largely disregarded in both political and security contexts is largely due to the fact that those opposing the TTP in recent years — particularly from the erstwhile tribal areas — are perceived to be tangential, rather than an intrinsic part of the national whole.
As long as problems such as death threats, extortionate demands, and murderous attacks by the TTP were restricted to the peripheries, there was little motivation to act decisively, let alone pre-emptively, among political and military power centres.
And so here we are, back to the future. Earlier this month, the TTP claimed that it now occupies a “vast portion” of the former tribal areas. Unconfirmed reports are also circulating of some Baloch separatist leaders joining hands with the TTP, highlighting again how neglect of the so-called peripheries can lead to unmanageable challenges.
These developments are a throwback to the mid-2000s, when domestic militant groups were able to consolidate, leading Pakistan into its arguably darkest decade.
It does not have to be this way. Pakistan has previously demonstrated the potential to reframe its centre-periphery model. The 18th Constitutional Amendment provided a roadmap for empowering all provinces, undermining policies that might conceptualise any part of the country as peripheral.
And going by media reports, the security establishment this summer did not concede to the TTP’s demand to reverse the Fata merger, indicating little appetite to treat certain parts of Pakistan, and certain Pakistani citizens, as expendable.
But there is a long way to go. In the counterterrorism context, lessons should be learned by ensuring that the revitalised Nacta and future efforts by provincial CT departments are well coordinated, with information access and strategic decision-making flowing across all parts of the country.
More importantly, a top-down, centralised approach should be made subservient to the learnings and preferences of areas most affected by the TTP.
Beyond the security realm, a dramatic reframing of Pakistan’s centre and its peripheries is required, with a greater effort made by key stakeholders to value all parts of the country, and all its citizens, as central.
This approach would tackle the structural drivers — such as unequal access to education, justice, employment, opportunity — that fuel militancy in the first place, and reiterate that all Pakistanis are deserving of security and prosperity.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
Published in Dawn, December 26th, 2022