Since the Pakistani Taliban or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) announcement of the cancellation of the ceasefire with the Pakistani government on 28 November 2022, all eyes have turned to Pakistan. The movement ordered its fighters to launch bloody attacks throughout the country, which is an indication that this year Pakistan may see escalating violence due to Pakistani Taliban’s growing activity.
The movement is taking advantage of the Islamabad government’s preoccupation with facing the political, economic and security challenges that have beset the country since last year. This scenario has already been favored as Taliban intensified their attacks, which mainly targeted police forces in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan and the areas bordering Afghanistan. The most recent attack was on 17 February by Taliban militants on the headquarters of Karachi police, resulting in at least 4 deaths and the injury of police officers and others.
The violence was preceded by a suicide attack that has been classified as one of the deadliest in Pakistan in years, targeting a police mosque in Peshawar city, killing about 100 people and injuring at least 170. Pakistani Taliban were immediately accused. Although Sarbakaf Mohmand, one of the group’s leaders, claimed responsibility, its spokesperson Mohammad Khorasani denied it, explaining that targeting mosques, schools and religious sites is not among the group’s policies. Aside from the responsibility of the Pakistani Taliban for this attack, it is clear from the current data that there are escalating security threats that would undermine the Islamabad government’s ability to establish a stable security situation in Pakistan in light of the growing attacks by militants on Pakistani soil.
In terms of numbers, violence rates in Pakistan have increased since the beginning of this year, in direct proportion with the growth of armed groups in the country, foremost of which is the Pakistani Taliban. According to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), militants carried out some 58 attacks in February 2023 alone, an increase of 32% compared to January of the same year. In the same context, the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) reported that the number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan in 2022 increased by 27% compared to 2021.
Following the collapse of the ceasefire agreements – often described as “fragile” – between the Pakistani government and the Pakistani Taliban in November, the latter’s attacks targeting Pakistani security forces escalated. According to a report by the Pakistani Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), the group carried out more than 20 attacks in December in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, the most prominent of which was the detention of a number of police officers in a counter-terrorism center in the Banu district in the northwest on 18 December.
The movement’s attacks also escalated in January and February, as it confirmed in a statement that it carried out 29 armed operations against the Pakistani army and security forces in various regions of the country in February, resulting in the death and injury of 127 security personnel and the destruction of five army patrols, and a police patrol, in addition to damages to three Pakistani police buildings. Most of these operations were carried out in the tribal areas and adjacent northwestern regions.
The targets of the recent attacks by the Pakistani Taliban show that the police forces have borne the brunt of the human losses due to these bloody attacks and the low morale among its ranks as a result of the group’s constant threats to continue targeting senior police officers if it does not stop cooperating with the army in the fight against the movement.
This prompted dozens of police officers in Peshawar to protest in early February, demanding that the government exerts more effort to ensure their security and provide them with the necessary equipment to fight terrorists. It was also remarkable that the movement is trying through propaganda to promote the ability of its elements to strike outside its current sphere of influence to reach the capital, Islamabad. This is evident in a video clip posted on the movement’s media platforms, in which one of its members appears from the Margalla hills, a few kilometers from Islamabad, and using the camera, the person sheds light on the Pakistani parliament with a paper in his hand that reads “We are coming”. This indicates that the group’s geographic compass is strongly oriented toward the capital, especially after the Pakistani Taliban claimed suicide attacks in Islamabad in December. For years, the capital had been somewhat distant from the group’s series of attacks in the border areas with Afghanistan.
There are a number of factors that drive Pakistani Taliban to escalate their attacks on Pakistani soil, most prominently:
- The movement’s growing strength: The recent violent attacks waged by the Taliban in Pakistan reflect the increasing elements of material and moral strength, which was also reflected in the movement’s unilateral cancellation of the ceasefire last November and its insistence on its demands in negotiations with the government, whose repeated versions failed, in addition to the movement’s success in enhancing the tactical effectiveness of its operations, and expanding its cadre of trained fighters, weapons, and equipment that exceeded the capabilities of the police forces in some areas. The increasing elements of the movement’s strength can be attributed to a number of factors:
- First, the group has strengthened its human component by including a number of militant groups opposed to the Pakistani government, including three Pakistani groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda and four major factions that broke away from the Pakistani Taliban in 2014. Applying the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” popular amongst terrorist organizations, the relationship between the Pakistani Taliban, the Turkistan Islamic Party and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement has strengthened. The latter provided the former with information, devices and explosives in exchange for the Pakistani Taliban’s pledge to provide support during its infiltration into Pakistan, according to the 31st report issued on 13 February by the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team on ISIL and Al-Qaeda at the United Nations Security Council.
- Second, the Islamabad government has engaged in negotiations with the group. Some see this as a “tactical truce” representing an opportunity for the group to collect forces and catch breath to resume attacks inside Pakistan. During the ceasefire, the group reportedly sent some 1,000 militants to their areas of origin, but instead of rejoining their tribes and settling down as Pakistani negotiators had hoped, they sought to reassert authority in their former strongholds of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and reactivate dormant cells in other parts of the country.
- Third, the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in late 2021, enabling the movement to escape the impact of US airstrikes targeting it. The Pakistani movement also received the advanced military equipment left behind by the withdrawing US forces, as well as the group’s restoration of its recruited elements in Afghanistan. A large number of its fighters who had participated alongside its Afghan counterpart in the fight against the US and NATO forces can now be directed to the movement’s battle against the Pakistani government.
- Fourth, the Afghan Taliban regained its rule in Afghanistan and allowed many terrorist organizations to be based on the Afghan soil, and spread its threat across the border to its Pakistani neighbor. The United Nations estimates that approximately 5,000 Pakistani Taliban fighters and their relatives reside on the territory of Afghanistan with the protection of Taliban, which, following its takeover of Kabul in mid-August 2021, released hundreds of Pakistani Taliban prisoners held in Kabul prisons by the two former Afghan presidents: Ashraf Ghani and Hamid Karzai. Videos released by the Pakistani movement since the Afghan Taliban seized power show that its members and leaders enjoy freedom of movement on the Afghan ground, especially in the eastern areas adjacent to the Pakistani border.
- Weak capabilities of the Pakistani police forces: Facing the development of the movement’s capabilities and its bloody attacks, the Pakistani police forces experience problems related to the lack of material, human and logistical resources allocated to them to counter the progress of the movement’s elements and thwart its plans. This makes the forces easy targets for the movement’s snipers, suicide operations, and advanced weapons such as US-made M4 rifles, small surveillance drones used by the group for surveillance, and other advanced weapons depots left behind by Western forces withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2021.
- Ceasefire cancellation and failed talks with the government: The recent escalation of attacks by the Pakistani Taliban comes as a practical translation of the movement’s cancellation of the ceasefire agreement with the Islamabad government, and the stalled talks with the government with Afghan mediation in August 2022. The recent escalation is against the backdrop of the Pakistani government’s rejection of the movement’s demands to disintegrate the federally administered tribal areas (the movement’s hometown and former main stronghold) from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and impose its control over the tribal region. It was in 2018 that the Pakistani parliament passed a constitutional bill that would provide a mechanism for the integration of the historically called federally administered tribal areas (FATA) into stable Pakistani territory, which would subsequently become part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. On the other hand, the Pakistani Taliban rejected the government’s demands of ending violence and the organizational disarmament and dissolution of the movement.
- Responding to security forces strikes: The intensification of the Pakistani Taliban attacks on the Pakistani geography represents a practical translation of the movement’s efforts to take revenge and vengeance for the alleged targeting of its leaders in the past months by the Pakistani intelligence. Some sources report that among the methods the Pakistani forces use to strike the Pakistani Taliban is the attempt to dismantle the continued trust and cooperation that binds the latter with its Afghan counterpart, through targeting a number of its leaders inside Afghanistan, allowing room for doubt that may lead to tension between the two movements. Therefore, the group seeks to intensify its attacks to prove its steadfastness and structural resilience after the loss of its leaders on the one hand, and preserve the morale of its elements and allow no room for raising suspicions of betrayal by the Afghan Taliban on the other hand.
- Enhancing the movement’s financing capabilities: The recent attacks by the Pakistani Taliban movement can be seen as part of its efforts to obtain financing sources enabling it to continue its operational activity. These attacks create a state of fear and panic among citizens, on which the movement can then build on in its practice of extortion and kidnapping for ransom, one of the most famous movement tactics to enhance its financial situation, especially with some speculation about lack of funding resources inside Afghanistan. Wealthy people and local lawmakers in many parts of Pakistan have recently come under pressure to donate to and pay for the movement, and those who refuse are punished either by throwing grenades at their doors or shooting them. Besides benefiting from such approach in making money, it also allows the movement to undermine the population’s confidence in local institutions.
- Utilizing Pakistani government crises: The Pakistani Taliban attacks come against the backdrop of the turbulent political, economic, security and climatic conditions which Pakistan has been experiencing recently. Economically, the country is facing deteriorating economic conditions, exacerbated by the repercussions of the Corona virus, and the devastating floods caused by climate change, which resulted in submerging a third of Pakistan’s area with water during the past year, damaged infrastructure, loss of hundreds of lives, and incurred losses of more than 10 billion USD, as well as the collapse of foreign exchange reserves, rising inflation, among other challenges. On the political level, the country has been witnessing political instability since the dismissal of the government of former Prime Minister Imran Khan in a parliamentary vote of no confidence last April, and the subsequent protests and chaotic scenes that the country has witnessed over the past few months, punctuated by many acts of violence. In view of the volatile economic and political situation, Pakistan is also facing significant security challenges related to the increase in violence, as a result protests erupting in the northwestern regions demanding that the authorities resolve the security situation, after these areas were subjected to violence by militants on the main streets. In such context, the Pakistani Taliban see an opportunity to invest in these crises to exert more pressure on the Pakistani government, whose military options for dealing with the movement are limited, given its lack of resources to continue to preemptively launch large-scale intensive campaigns against the group’s strongholds.
- Failure of the reintegration policy: The government of former Prime Minister Imran Khan sought to repatriate some 5,000 Pakistani Taliban members in Afghanistan to Pakistan and have them resettled in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. Some Pakistani circles saw this attempt as failure, which helped fuel recent terrorist activity in the country. Proponents of the trend argue that such failure can be attributed to two things: first, funding for the reintegration of these elements could not be allocated; they were therefore left to roam freely on Pakistani soil, and second, it is difficult to convince the movement’s members to abandon their ideas, disarm and integrate into Pakistani society, given that they are motivated by a radical ideology that does not recognize the modern state and its constitutional foundations.
- The growing threat of ISIS: The Pakistani Taliban seeks to prove its strength before Pakistani forces by intensifying its bloody attacks. It is also trying to use these attacks to prove its steadfastness and cohesion to its elements, in fear of ISIS recruitment attempts, whose attacks have escalated in Pakistan and Afghanistan since late 2021. ISIS may be able to use the Pakistani Taliban’s negotiations and talks with the government to serve its jihadist agenda on many levels, including trying to attract members of the group who are disappointed with these negotiations by presenting itself as a jihadist alternative, similar to what the group has done in the past with the Afghan Taliban by utilizing some fighters discontent with its negotiations with the United States to intensify its propaganda efforts to attract them to its ranks.
The escalation of the Pakistani Taliban movement activity in a turbulent security and political environment has many repercussions of a domestic and external nature, as follows:
- Increasing popular anger with the government: Waves of violence associated with attacks by the Pakistani Taliban increase the state of popular anger at the Pakistani government, especially in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which is historically a center for the movement’s attacks. Residents of this area suffer from lack of security, the flow of Taliban fighters, their control of security checkpoints at night, and their practice of kidnappings and extortion, as well as the loss of many lives in the past years whether in the military operations launched by government forces against terrorist strongholds or terrorist attacks that have displaced large numbers of civilians and destroyed entire cities. These have recently led to protests in the northwestern regions demanding that the authorities resolve the security situation in the country.
- Exacerbating the political and economic situation: The volatile security situation may exacerbate political tensions in Pakistan and increase fault lines between the current government led by Shahbaz Sharif and supporters of former Prime Minister Imran Khan over the date of national elections. The growing political and security instability will also exacerbate the current crisis in the Pakistani economy. Terrorist operations have increased the economic burden at a cost of more than 123 billion USD, and directly affected investment and tourism sectors, as well as the high cost of Pakistan’s defense budget on securing the border with Afghanistan, and military and intelligence operations aimed at curbing terrorist activity.
- Threat to regional security and stability: The attacks of the Pakistani Taliban increase the risk of terrorist threats in the region, which have escalated concerns since the return of the Afghan Taliban to power in Afghanistan, and the increasing areas concerned safe havens for many terrorist organizations on Afghan soil under the auspices of Taliban. The escalation of the Pakistani Taliban attacks may also push the Islamabad government to engage in new negotiations with the group, through which the latter may have some long-term privileges such as reducing the number of government forces in their areas, which ISIS may use to strengthen its ranks in northwestern Pakistan as a platform for the rest of the country, especially since various historical experiences have proven that terrorist organizations in general and ISIS in particular have taken advantage of the decrease in the number of security forces and the decline in counter-terrorism efforts to launch more attacks, which can be repeated in Pakistan.
- Tense relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan: The increased frequency of the Pakistani Taliban attacks may increase the gap and tension between the governments of Islamabad and Kabul. In the wake of the Pakistani movement’s attacks, the Islamabad government immediately accuses the Afghan Taliban of providing support to the Pakistani Taliban. In turn, the Kabul government rejects these accusations and demands that the Pakistani side resolve its internal problems before pointing fingers at others.
In conclusion, the pace of violence related to the growing activity of the Pakistani Taliban is likely to continue this year, in light of a number of factors, foremost of which is the preoccupation of the Islamabad government with confronting the political, economic and security challenges plaguing the country, and the movement’s increasing elements of strength against the obstacles limiting the capabilities of the police forces in confronting its deadly attacks. The future of the conflict between Taliban and the government is also likely to depend on the effectiveness of the Pakistani forces’ approach to the movement, especially since some analysts believe that a comprehensive military operation may not be feasible, given that the movement’s elements are currently scattered, which makes it difficult to target its members. Another factor that will determine the future of this conflict is the amount of tension between the Islamabad government and the Afghan Taliban in light of the strong ties between the latter and its Pakistani counterpart, and its ability to steer negotiations between the Pakistani Taliban and the government in favor of its interests.