THE recent militant attack in the Zhob town of Balochistan, where the Pakistan military lost nine soldiers, was one of the latest in a string of attacks targeting security forces in areas that were previously considered relatively free of militancy.

This is a separate phenomenon from the insurgency that plagues the Baloch-majority areas of the province; outfits linked to the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its offshoots are now stepping up their attacks against security personnel in the province’s northern parts — traditionally considered Pakhtun-majority areas.

Though these areas are closer to the border with Afghanistan and also in close proximity to tribal districts such as South Waziristan, they had remained comparatively less affected by terrorist activities in the past.

Asif Baloch, a Quetta-based newspaper editor, believes that since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, two fronts have been opened against the state, i.e. TTP has stepped up its attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well as the Pakhtun belt of Balochistan.

“The security situation has always been grim in the Baloch parts,” he notes, adding that the Pakhtun belt had not been in the crosshairs of such groups.

In the recent months, the TTP has even been trying to make inroads in the Baloch-majority areas of the province, releasing propaganda videos in Balochi.

In some of these videos, the group talks about missing persons and the deprivation faced by the people of the province, an obvious attempt to make inroads among the Baloch by appealing to their sensibilities.

According to analyst Muhammad Amir Rana, the TTP has traditionally had a support base in the Pakhtun belt, which is why they were able to carry out attacks in these parts.

“Also, their targets are specific. Previously, they would attack the police force, but now they have started targeting FC and military personnel and their camps. Even though the number of attacks has not increased as such, the TTP has been trying to create a disturbance in the region,” he says.

In addition, the TTP has — by its own admission — split the province into two. A statement released by the group some time ago claimed that the Baloch-majority area is part of their Kalat-Makran chapter, while the Pakhtun-dominated parts fall under the Zhob chapter.

As for the new outfit that claimed the audacious attack on the military installation in Zhob — using the moniker of Tehreek-i-Jihad Pakistan — experts believe that it is a “cover name” for the TTP or one of its affiliated outfits.

When asked to explain the change of tactics on part of the TTP, Asif Baloch points out that the western route of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — a flagship project of Beijing — also passes through the Pakhtun-dominated parts of the province.

Since China has been trying to consolidate its position in the region, Mr Baloch sees this as one of the possible reasons behind the rise in attacks there. The security of CPEC has been the responsibility of the Pakistan military, which has tasked the special security division with protecting its assets and infrastructure.

A security official Dawn spoke to also pointed out that hostile agencies had been trying to disrupt the peace in Balochistan, attributing such attacks to their intervention in the province.

“But thanks to our security forces, most of the attacks have been averted,” he noted.

Jalal Noorzai, a Quetta-based columnist and analyst also notes that the militancy plaguing the Pakhtun-majority parts of the province is a relatively new phenomenon.

It shows the banned TTP is trying to consolidate its position in the region, he says, adding: “This does not augur well for peace in the region in general. Unfortunately, if the threat is not contained, it may increase in magnitude in the future.”

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2023

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