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Pashtun militants attack in Zhob, Balochistan: How Pakistan is suffering its own karma for perpetuating terrorism


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In the early morning hours of 12 July a group of five heavily armed Pakistani Pashtun militants attacked an army garrison in Zhob, Balochistan. The garrison which goes back to British days is at the province’s north-eastern edge, located in a Pashtun populated area and borders Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province. While the militants were killed the army lost nine soldiers. The Zhob attack was claimed by the Tehreek-i-Jihad Pakistan (TJP). After some initial confusion a Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson said that the TJP was a fellow traveler of the TTP.

The militants who undertook the Zhob attack were armed with US origin automatic weapons and night vision devices. This is the desiderata of the US military presence in Afghanistan and sophisticated lethal hardware with the TTP or its affiliates is obviously a problem for the Pakistan forces. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan had led to the country becoming awash with Kalashnikovs and other weapons left behind by the Soviet army when it left Afghanistan in 1989 and also with the weapons supplied by the US to the Mujahideen who fought the Soviets. To that has been added US weapon systems which were either with the Afghan Republic’s forces which surrendered to the Taliban or which the departing US forces could not destroy. Thus, there is no dearth of weapons with the TTP and other anti-Pakistani groups operating out of Afghanistan. What they will have to eventually replenish is ammunition which naturally gets depleted with either use or aging. It can, however, be presumed that there would be sufficient ammunition for at least a couple of years.

What has clearly rattled the Pakistani army leadership is the TTP’s capacity to undertake Zhob like operations against well-guarded army installations. Such actions are obviously different from hit-and-run militant attacks or ambushes. They are also different from individual terrorist attacks such as that in a Peshawar Mosque in January this year which claimed the lives of more than eighty policemen. Significantly, on 12 May,  exactly two months before the Zhob attack a Frontier Force camp at Muslim Bagh located in an adjacent district of Zhob was attacked though it has not been clarified by Pakistan who undertook it. In that attack twelve persons, including security personnel and militants, died.

Pakistan’s military and civilian authorities have been urging the Taliban to ensure that the TTP and other anti-Pakistan state groups are not able to use Afghanistan as a sanctuary from which they can undertake attacks in Pakistan. On Its part the Taliban has sometimes taken some cosmetic steps such as moving some TTP elements away from the vicinity of the Durand Line. However, mainly the Taliban has asked Pakistan to put its own house in order instead of blaming it. The Taliban has also reiterated the undertaking it gave in its agreement with the US in Doha in February 2020 that it will not allow its territory to be used by international terrorist groups.

Interestingly, the joint statement that issued after the May 2023 meeting of the Pakistan and Chinese foreign ministers with the acting Afghan foreign minister in Islamabad stated, inter alia, “The three sides stressed the need of not allowing any individual, group or party, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) etc., to use their territories to harm and threaten regional security and interests, or conduct terrorist actions and activities.” If Pakistan thought that the Taliban would operationalize this undertaking it was mistaken because the Taliban and the TTP have theological and tribal affinities.

The Zhob attack has stung the Pakistan army very hard.  Army chief General Asim Munir chaired a Corps Commanders meeting on 17 July. After the meeting the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) statement noted, “The sanctuaries and liberty of action available to the terrorists of proscribed TTP and other groups of that ilk in a neighbouring country and availability of latest weapons to the terrorists were noted as major reasons impacting security of Pakistan.” The army’s sentiments were echoed by civilian leaders. Some Pakistani analysts have felt that the ISPR statement is a hint to the Taliban that Pakistan would be willing to go after the terrorists on Afghan soil itself. The Pakistani media noted that Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid asked Pakistan to settle its own problem and warned that any Pakistani action on Afghan territory would have a “serious reaction”.

he Taliban has put Pakistan on the horns of a dilemma. Gone are days when Pakistani generals strutted about in the summer of 2021 when the US forces retreated in disarray having been defeated in Afghanistan. There is no doubt that Pakistan had achieved strategic success in nurturing the Taliban for two decades and finally ensuring that it re-took power in Afghanistan. However, it is one thing to win a war and another to win the peace. It is in the latter sphere that Pakistan has failed. If it thought that the Taliban would hand over the TTP to show its gratitude it was in error. And, if the Pakistan army considered that many Taliban leaders had families and economic interests in Pakistan and hence would be amenable to Pakistani ‘advice’ and persuasion or be arm-twisted it was also mistaken. Indeed, the Taliban is nurturing the TTP inter alia as a card against Pakistan putting pressure on Kabul.

It is also ironic that the Taliban is supporting the TTP even though Pakistan is pleading with the international community to continue to support the Taliban government. Addressing the virtual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on 4 July, Pakistan prime minister Shehbaz Sharif said that the international community was at a “standstill” on Afghanistan. He pleaded for greater engagement by the international community with the Taliban. He did not focus on gender issues or the international community’s demand for the formation of an inclusive government in Afghanistan. The Taliban took and will continue to take Pakistan’s advocacy on its behalf in its stride but will not give it joy on the TTP front.

Perceptive Pakistanis—and they would admittedly be few—would find it terribly ironic that the instrument of cross border terrorism that their country employed against India and did so against the Afghan Republic is what the Taliban is using against them.

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