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Can Pakistan’s Embattled Polity Act Against Militant Groups?

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Despite claims by the Pakistani military that it has cleared the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region and other tribal areas in the northwest of militants, evidence suggests that jihadist movements in Pakistan such as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are re-energised and emboldened.

The  alliance of militant networks  Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan has announced three new ‘administrative units’ and rising attacks indicate that they are regrouping not only in the tribal areas, but in other centres. The number of TTP administrative units has reached 12 in the country, out of which seven are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one in Gilgit-Baltistan, and two each in Balochistan and Punjab. The group seems intent on rebuilding its operational capacity by consolidating various factions, a development that will have security implications for the entire region.

Pakistan, which had been facilitating the Taliban’s return to power, in an effort to marginalise India and keep Indians out of Kabul, had hoped that the Afghan Taliban would use its fluence to persuade the TTP to curtail its attacks and become amenable to negotiations with the Pakistani state. Islamabad never imagined that neither the Afghan Taliban nor the Haqqani Network leaders, such as Mullah Omar and Sirajuddin Haqqani, would refuse to utilise clout to modify the conduct of the TTP. Pak military strategists reasoned that once the US forces withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban would lose their legitimacy to fight and when that comes to pass, they reckoned, the TTP would also lose whatever ideological legitimacy it has, because it had emerged from Pakistan’s role in the war on terror.

Rather both groups have maintained a mutually beneficial relationship, and the Afghan Taliban have not spoken directly about the TTP recently. Then in November last year, the ceasefire agreement between the  TTP and the Pakistan government collapsed and the banned outfit group stepped up attacks across the country. TTP’s leader, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, and spokesperson Muhammad Khurasani in their statements have attributed Pakistan’s problems of inflation and taxes, rising ethnic strife, and government mismanagement of natural disasters to the “the government’s cruel policies”, the corrupt practices of its civil and military leaders. This is testament that the Pakistani state has been ignoring the political drivers of the insurgency.

So, while the Pakistani government has been insisting that its sustained counterterrorism measures have rendered the TTP a fragmented and exhausted militant organisation, the latter appears to have reinvented itself becoming more potent. This year till August, more than 200 Pakistani military officers and soldiers  have been killed in escalating terror violence, especially in the districts near or along the Afghan border where militant ambushes and raids against security forces become daily occurrences. Remarking on the August 31 attack at a military convoy in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Bannu district, in which nine soldiers were killed, Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar said that  militant groups are carrying out frequent and more lethal attacks on security forces because they are using the military equipment left behind by the United States in Afghanistan. Speaking to state television Kakar “This equipment has greatly enhanced the fighting capacity of terrorists and non-state actors in the region,” and that “Previously, they had minimal capacity, but they can now target my soldier even if he moves his finger.”

Incidentally just three days prior to these attacks,  counterterrorism experts at the UN, Vladimir Voronkov, and Natalia Ghe­rman, raised the alarm about “Nato-calibre weapons” ending up in the hands of IS-K, through the TTP, at the Security Council. The report claimed that Nato-calibre weapons, typically associated with the former Afghan National Def­ence and Security Forces, were “being transferred to IS-K by groups affiliated with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, such as TTP and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

Rejecting such claims as ‘unfounded’ Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Taliban government posted on his X account that since the Taliban takeover, “activities of the Daesh group in Afghanistan have been reduced to zero”. He said that those who were “spreading such undocumented and negative propaganda” about terrorist activities in Afghanistan “either lack information or want to use this propaganda to give a moral boost to Daesh and its cause”.

On September 6 the TTP began its incursion into Chitral and four soldiers and 12 militants were killed in clashes. The area borders Afghanistan and also Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. TTP chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud has appeared in a video that purports to show him passing instructions to the jihadists fighting Pakistani army in Chitral district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Cashes between TTP militants and security forces have become more frequent. The use of gunship helicopters and the Pak government’s imposition of frequent curfews in the mountainous region indicates that TTP militants have succeeded in forming a new safe haven, on the Pakistani side of the border. These attacks were the latest in a series by the TTP.

In a meeting of the National Security Committee held in April, Pakistan’s military and civil leadership concluded that the recent wave of terrorism in Pakistan was a result of “the soft corner and the absence of a well-thought-out policy against the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan”. 

After the fall of Kabul the eagerness for reconciliation on the Pakistani side was enhanced considerably. Since the resurgence of the militant group, the Pakistan Army Has attempted to distance itself from the previous government’s initiative of holding dialogue with the TTP. In a press conference earlier this year, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) Director General Maj-Gen Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry categorically stated that “holding dialogue with the banned TTP was the decision of the then-government of Pakistan and they have openly admitted this as well”. But the reality is that exactly a year ago, it was the country’s powerful army which was  pushing for a negotiated settlement with the TTP. negotiations between the TTP leadership and the Pakistani army officials were going on since late 2021. A 50-member Pakistani tribal assembly delegation ‘jirga’ was handpicked by the former Director General ISI Directorate Lt. General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry to talk with the TTP. Faiz himself held direct talks with the TTP. The jirga talks with the TTP was a project of the Pakistan army, to work out a peace deal since they “all come from the same region and ethno-cultural background”.

UN counter terrorism experts have rightly pointed out that these weapons pose a “serious threat in conflict zones and neighbouring countries”. For decades the weak and failing state of Pakistan has been an attractive safe haven for transnational terrorist groups. The resurgence of these militant safe havens in Pakistan will make terror groups more powerful and violent from Kashmir to Xinjiang. With consistent political and economic uncertainty, Pakistan  internal dynamics are also ripe for insurgent groups to thrive. As the violence escales, other Pakistani militant outfits  will see in the rise of the TTP, a model to emulate and practically adopt in the quest of their jihadist objectives. India can expect a repeat of the 1990s scenario when foreign fighters poured into Kashmir from camps in Pakistan which actively helped to fuel the insurgency. The question is can Pakistan’s embattled polity act against the armed militant groups within the country?

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