Monday, March 20, 2023

Pakistan faces terrorism surge post-Afghan war

Of course we have blowback which has been the the history of every other insurgency sponsored by a neighboring power.  At least Stalin knew to round them all up and then shoot them.  After all disloyalty is terribly infectious.

Truth is, the pakistani military is so diserving.  The good news is that it should slowly age out so long as they simply accept the damage.

Even the old NAZIS soon gave it up for a return to civilian life.  Lies eventually lose their edge.

A suicide blast killed 101 in a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan in January. Terror attacks in the country have increased since the Taliban took power in neighboring Afghanistan in August 2021. © Reuters

Pakistan faces terrorism surge post-Afghan war

Islamabad helped bring the Taliban to power, now it faces the consequences

MARCH 15, 2023 06:00 JST

ISLAMABAD -- On Jan. 30 at 1:30 p.m., hundreds of worshippers, mostly police officers, gathered for Monday afternoon prayer at the Police Line Mosque in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar.

A huge explosion soon rang out. The shock wave and debris from 12 kilograms of explosives sliced through the crowd. The entire structure of the mosque collapsed, the concrete walls falling in on anyone left alive. In all, 101 people were killed and 200 injured.

"There was a huge bang and I do not remember anything afterward," said one of the victims, a police constable, who asked that his name not be used. "I was badly hurt in the attack but lucky to survive while so many of my colleagues lost their lives."

A suicide bomber had carried out the attack, apparently aided by security personnel, according to an investigation. A breakaway faction of a terror group linked to Afghanistan's Taliban known as the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), took credit for the blast, calling it revenge for the death of a former TTP commander blown up by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in August. Pakistan has denied killing the former commander.

For many in Pakistan, the bombing came as the unwelcome confirmation of a disturbing trend. While terrorism had become an almost daily occurrence during the 20-year civil war in neighboring Afghanistan, Islamabad had assumed that with the end of major fighting in 2021 and the victory of the Taliban, these attacks would end. The Taliban, so the thinking went, were beholden to Pakistan out of gratitude for years of support.

Police officers examine the remains of a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan, which was targeted by a suicide bomber on Jan. 30. More than 100 died in the attack. © AP

Instead, terrorism has actually increased, unleashed by a sudden rise in the number of militant groups that operate from Afghanistan, enjoying the support, or at the very least benign tolerance, of the new government in Kabul.

Last year, there were 262 terror attacks in Pakistan, the most in four years, according to data collected by the Pak Institute of Peace Studies in Islamabad. Border clashes between Afghan and Pakistani border troops have also increased, and at least 14 shootouts between Pakistan and Afghan Taliban border guards have taken place since August 2021, according to news reports.

Pakistan's leadership appears stunned by the turn of events. "[The] Pakistani people had high expectations from the Afghan Taliban government, which proved to be wrong," said Abrar Hussain, the vice chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies in Pakistan, who served as Pakistan's ambassador to Kabul from 2014 to 2017.


On Aug. 15, 2021, Pakistan celebrated the Taliban's capture of Kabul and the reestablishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), a humiliating defeat for the United States after a 20-year campaign. Afghanistan's new rulers were presumed to be friends of Pakistan, which had covertly protected the group and supported it. The day the Taliban entered Kabul, Imran Khan, then-prime minister of Pakistan, described the event as the Taliban "breaking the chains of slavery."

Taliban fighters on patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 19, 2021, a few days after the group took control of the city. © AP

However, the rise in terror attacks has cast Pakistan's previous cultivation of the Taliban in a new light. Most attacks are blamed on the TTP, an umbrella organization made up of various Islamist militant groups with the combined aim of overthrowing the Pakistani government and enforcing a Shariah regime. The TTP has pledged allegiance to the Afghan Taliban and also fought alongside them against U.S.-led forces, learning guerrilla warfare techniques.

After the Peshawar bombing, the TTP staged another daring attack, on Feb. 17, when its militants stormed police headquarters in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and, with two ports, its commercial hub. Four security guards and one civilian were killed.

A plainclothes police officer stands beside bullet-riddled walls following a militant attack on the police headquarters in Karachi, Pakistan, on Feb. 17. © AP

According to a report by the U.N. Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team in 2022, there are between 3,000 and 5,000 TTP fighters.

Two other groups have stepped up attacks in Pakistan following the end of the war next door. One is the Islamic State group, a jihadi organization that has spread through the Middle East since being driven out of Syria and Iraq over the previous decade, and competes for power with the Taliban. The IS group claimed responsibility for bombing a Shiite mosque in the Qissa Khwani Bazaar, in Peshawar, in March 2022. At least 63 people were killed and 196 injured.

Also fighting in Pakistan are Baloch ethnic separatists who want independence for their homeland.

The common factor in the rise of these attacks is Afghanistan, where the groups can operate without interference and go to regroup, though Baloch separatists also use Iran as a haven, according to Pakistani government sources. A government official told Nikkei that the TTP "does not have any safe sanctuary in Pakistan. So they mount attacks from their safe havens in Afghanistan and go back after carrying out attacks."

Safe haven

Pakistan's support for the Taliban has always been something of an enigma to outside observers. While Islamabad has always denied it covertly supported the movement, whose first members were recruited from Pakistani religious schools in the 1990s, U.S. officials have repeatedly alleged that the group enjoyed ties to the Pakistani government, even while it was fighting against U.S.-led coalition forces.

Afghans try to flee the country at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 26, 2021, days ahead of the deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw from the nation. © EPA/Jiji

During the war, Pakistan "continued to arm and support the Taliban, providing the group safe haven and allowing it to strengthen its hand in Afghanistan," said Eliot Engel, then chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, at a hearing in January 2020. It is just one of many public statements by U.S. officials on the issue.

Islamabad's support for the Taliban has arguably been inspired by the complicated geopolitics of the region. Pakistan sees Afghanistan through the prism of its long-running conflict with neighbor India. U.S.-backed Afghan governments under former Presidents Ashraf Ghani and Hamid Karzai leaned toward New Delhi and distrusted Islamabad, leading the Pakistani government to see the Taliban as a way to neutralize Indian influence on its western border, analysts say.

Pakistan's relations with Afghanistan were rocky under former Afghan presidents Ashraf Ghani, left, and Hamid Karzai, who distrusted Islamabad. © Getty Images

But despite depending on Islamabad for protection and support during the insurgency, the Taliban have since grown disenchanted with Pakistan, and vice versa. After U.S. forces withdrew in 2021 and Afghanistan's government quickly capitulated, Pakistan declined to recognize the new government due to international pressure.

Meanwhile, Taliban rulers have struggled to consolidate power among the fratricidal groups that made up the Afghan insurrection. This complicated power struggle within Afghan Taliban ruling circles is largely responsible for the Afghan government's inaction against terrorism in Pakistan, according to a source close to Taliban leadership in Kandahar who requested anonymity. He conceded that drug trafficking, illegal immigration and terrorist movements from Afghanistan to Pakistan have increased since the fall of Kabul.

Taliban leaders fear that entering into a conflict with the TTP would drive that organization to join the Islamic State group -- which competes against the Taliban for power -- or even persuade it to turn its guns against the Kabul regime, the source said.

Latif Mehsud, a former senior commander of Pakistan's TTP, sits on an armed vehicle in the Mamouzai area of Orakzai Agency, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. (File photo by AFP/Jiji)

"During the Ashraf Ghani government, Afghan forces attacked TTP and they were restricted to certain places," the source said. "Now they have been provided with Maktoob (permission letters) by the Afghan Taliban to carry weapons and roam around in cities of Afghanistan."

Przemyslaw Lesinski, an Afghanistan expert at the War Studies University in Warsaw, says another factor behind the rise in attacks is that, with the end of the war, Pakistan's influence over the Taliban has waned. "For years the Afghan Taliban were dependent on Pakistan's unofficial aid. After the fall of Kabul the situation changed dramatically and right now they no longer need Pakistan support as in the past," he told Nikkei Asia.

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in [Washington], told Nikkei that the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan emboldened the TTP, making it want to replicate in Pakistan what the Taliban achieved in Afghanistan. Kugelman also said the Taliban have given the TTP sanctuary in Afghanistan to plan its campaign. The TTP aims to push the government of Pakistan out of the western province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and establish Shariah by waging a terrorist campaign against the military and state, according to an analysis by the U.S. State Department.

It was, Kugelman said, hopelessly naive of Islamabad to assume the Taliban would simply roll over and kowtow to the Pakistanis after they seized power. "The Taliban-Pakistan relationship," he added, "was never as symbiotic as many observers assumed."

Afghanistan's ministry of information and culture declined to answer questions submitted by Nikkei about their government's relationship with the TTP and attitude regarding Pakistan.

"A surge in attacks"

Within Pakistan, one of the most prominent battlegrounds of TTP militancy is the scenic valley of Swat, less than four hours from Islamabad thanks to a new motorway. One of the best-known tourist destinations in Pakistan, its alpine mountain meadows and over 100 hotels attract more than a million tourists every year on average -- except when it gets invaded by Taliban guerrillas.

Swat, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, pictured here after being ravaged by floods in August 2022, has seen an increase in separatist militancy. © AFP/Jiji

Residents thought that with the end of the war, they had seen the last of militants who used their valley, 30 kilometers from the Afghan border, as a refuge. In 2007, the TTP had taken control of 50 villages in Swat and established a parallel Shariah government, led by Mullah Fazlullah, a local cleric who began with a barrage of radio broadcasts. It took more than 15,000 government troops 60 days to flush the militants out of the valley in 2009. The operation involved a temporary exodus of over 1.3 million Swat residents.

Now, however, the specter posed by militants is back. Jalat Khan, a businessman in the valley's main urban center of Mingora, recently took a call that he says many other business owners have also received -- from men who identify themselves as TTP members. "They demanded a sum of tens of millions of rupees from me and threatened consequences if I did not comply," he told Nikkei. Khan added that he expects the government to deal with this problem so that Swat businessmen can work freely.

Six businessmen in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Afghanistan, confirmed to Nikkei that they had received extortion calls from Afghan phone numbers during the past year and a half. The extortion demands range from 5 million rupees ($17,800) to 30 million rupees ($107,000) based on the financial status of the target. However, most people are not willing to come forward with their complaints due to fear of reprisals.

Attacks along the Pakistani-Afghan border have been increasing since 2021. Here, people douse a cargo truck hit by artillery in the border town of Chaman, Pakistan, in December 2022. © Reuters

Haji Muhammad Afzal, a local politician of the PML-N, a center-right party, told Nikkei that people often receive WhatsApp messages to donate to certain mosques. He implies that these are veiled extortion demands.

Police are wary and have set up at least 18 new checkpoints along roads in Swat, Moazzam Jah Ansari, then the chief of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Police, told reporters late last year. He added that many of the militants were freed from jails in Afghanistan after the Taliban came to power.

Many experts blame a breakdown in negotiations between Pakistan and the TTP in 2022 for allowing the organization to gain strength. Before stepping down as prime minister in April 2022, Imran Khan and his government had started peace talks with the TTP, under the auspices of the Afghan Taliban.

Those talks did bring about a cease-fire last May that allowed many militants to return to Pakistan provided they were not armed. But in the midst of the negotiations, Omar Khalid Khorasani, a hard-line TTP commander, was killed in a bomb attack, which hastened the end of the talks.

Former Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks to reporters in June 2021. © Reuters

Pakistan denies it was behind the killing.

The talks finally collapsed in November after the TTP started launching attacks in Pakistan, taking revenge for their slain leader. "So we are now witnessing a surge in attacks inside Pakistan by the TTP," said Fakhar Kakakhel, an independent analyst specializing in militancy.

Khuram Iqbal, a counterterrorism expert in Islamabad, told Nikkei that starting negotiations with the TTP when it was worn out by successive military operations was a mistake. "When TTP was in disarray, Pakistan could have launched a decisive military operation to deal with the TTP menace once and for all," he said. "But instead they were allowed to recuperate during peace negotiations."

Separatist violence in Balochistan

While Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remains the epicenter of TTP attacks, the southwestern province of Balochistan is being targeted by ethnic separatists and Islamic militants, allegedly crossing over from Afghanistan.

Attacks by Baloch separatists have soared during the past couple of years, especially after the fall of Kabul. On Feb. 2, 2022, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), a militant separatist group, attacked two security posts belonging to the Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force. The fighting lasted 70 hours. The BLA said it killed 195 paramilitarists; the government said it lost only nine and that it killed 13 of the militants.

A government official based in Balochistan who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said many Baloch militants who had been living in Afghanistan left after the fall of Kabul, ending up in Balochistan and Iran. "After their return, they engaged in militancy full-time," the source said. "This is a major reason for the attacks by the Baloch militants."

Balochistan, in western Pakistan, has also been under increasing militant attacks since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. The truck in this photo was hit by a suicide bomber in the town of Quetta in November 2022. © AFP/Jiji

On Dec. 11, residents of Chaman, a border town in Balochistan, woke up to indiscriminate artillery shelling by Taliban border forces. Seven people were killed and sixteen wounded, all civilians. The Afghan Taliban border forces shelled the Pakistani town due to a dispute regarding the placement of new checkpoints on the Afghan side of the border. Pakistan's border forces responded to the attack on Chaman by shelling the positions of the Taliban forces. No information is available on the number of losses suffered.

"Pakistani authorities are now facing the presence of [Taliban] guerrilla fighters instead of trained border guards as in the previous regime," Kakakhel, the independent analyst, said. He added that Taliban fighters are not professionally trained soldiers.

"Strategic patience"

Islamabad has little choice but to continue to negotiate with Kabul. Iqbal suggests a carrot-and-stick approach. The stick, he said, should take the form of "economic coercion, since Kabul is heavily reliant on Pakistan."

As for the carrot, Iqbal said Pakistan could make efforts to win global recognition for the Kabul regime.

Despite the tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kugelman said Islamabad continues to back the Taliban on the global stage. "If Pakistan is able to convince the Taliban of its continued leverage over the group, whether as an advocate for the Taliban regime abroad or as a longtime host of Afghan refugees, that can help move the needle forward," he argued.

A Pakistani paramilitary soldier, left, and Taliban fighters stand guard at a border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan in Torkham, Khyber district, Pakistan, in September 2021. © AP

In Pakistan's most recent effort to deal with TTP militants, a high-powered delegation under Defense Minister Khawaja Asif visited Kabul on Feb. 22. The message he delivered to the Taliban, reports say, was stark: Either cooperate with Pakistan or Islamabad will unilaterally handle the issue of the TTP.

The Afghan side responded by vowing that it will not allow any action against the TTP within its territory. In other words, if Pakistan moves against the TTP, it risks fighting its erstwhile allies in Kabul as well.

More intrigue came a week after Asif's visit, when Mohammad Sadiq, Pakistan's special envoy to Afghanistan for three years, abruptly resigned. News reports say he was sacked. Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to queries sent by Nikkei Asia regarding the resignation.

Analysts say Pakistan has little appetite for fighting the Taliban. "Such an operation will be counterproductive because all the jihadi energy in Afghanistan will be directed to Pakistan if such an operation is launched," Iqbal warned. "That's why Pakistan needs to maintain strategic patience in this issue."

No comments: