Pakistan cannot afford another conflict with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and has to devise a domestic political narrative that can justify a divorce from its previous policies.
Six years after Islamabad declared victory in a bloody, brutal conflict with Al Qaeda-aligned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) insurgents, it is faced with a resurgence of terrorist activity that threatens to reverse its post-war recovery.=
Parallel to the withdrawal of US-led NATO forces from Afghanistan and huge territorial gains by the Afghan Taliban, the TTP and an alliance of Baloch rebel groups have carried out more than 170 attacks since the beginning of May.
The wave of roadside bombings, ambushes and assassinations has mostly targeted Pakistani soldiers and policemen.
In July alone, the TTP claimed to have killed 56 “enemy personnel” and wounded 35 others in 26 attacks carried out mostly in the insurgents’ erstwhile stomping ground in the northwest tribal areas bordering eastern Afghanistan.
Half of the attacks have been carried out in South Waziristan, the former bastion of the TTP and Al Qaeda’s safehaven of choice after US forces invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.
According to local politicians, the TTP has re-established sufficient infrastructure to openly patrol pockets of territory in South Waziristan.
Its militants have also emerged from hiding in parts of North Waziristan to extort money from government contractors and issue death threats to women working for the government.
In a series of attacks starting on July 30, four soldiers were killed and a dozen wounded in attacks staged in Waziristan, while policemen providing security to polio inoculation teams in the tribal areas and settled districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province came under lethal assault on three consecutive days up to Tuesday.
On Thursday, the TTP campaign spread to the Orakzai and Khyber tribal areas, as a day-long wave claimed the lives of six soldiers, a policeman and a bystander.
There has also been a concerted campaign against Chinese nationals working in Pakistan.
In the most lethal overseas terrorist attack ever endured by Beijing, at least nine of its citizens were killed in a July 14 suicide attack on a two-bus convoy carrying engineering staff to the Dasu hydropower project in the remote northern region of Kohistan.
The ongoing wave of terrorist attacks by the TTP and Baloch insurgent groups seems to have been coordinated and designed to stretch Pakistan’s security and intelligence resources along its entire western flank, which borders both Afghanistan and Iran.
At the beginning of the three-month onslaught of terrorist attacks, Pakistani security forces in Balochistan were struck almost daily by nationalist rebels.
Many attacks involved improvised explosive devices, suggesting that the TTP had passed on bomb-making skills to the Baloch rebels as part of a tactical alliance against the Pakistani state.
In recent weeks, the attacks have shifted northwards to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, heightening suspicion in Islamabad about a prospective sharing of logistical networks by the TTP and Baloch insurgents, which carries with it the daunting prospect of the return of terrorism to Pakistan’s major cities.
The recent two-front resurgence of terrorist attacks is “an ominous portent of what could lie ahead,” wrote Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to Britain, the US and the United Nations.
Pakistan can ill-afford a resurgence of the conflict with the TTP. It cost the country tens of thousands of lives, brought the economy to its knees, and earned Pakistan an unenviable reputation as the global hub of terrorism.
After years of suffering and sacrifice, especially by civilian populations in northwest Pakistan, a terrorist comeback would be devastating to national morale and to its practically insolvent economy.
To date, Islamabad’s response has not been encouraging. Rather than informing the public about the severity of the terrorist threat facing Pakistan, it has actively sought to downplay it and to characterise all attacks as an India-led international conspiracy against the country.
This was particularly evident after the Dasu attack, which Islamabad remains reluctant to publicly address as a major terrorist incident.
The underlying issue here is one of mindset, specifically a refusal to acknowledge past mistakes, accept responsibility for them and proactively seek to learn from them and grow in the process.
What Islamabad’s declarations of “mission accomplished” in 2015 failed to say was that the TTP was down but not out.
The Pakistani government had broadcast its intention in mid-2014 to launch the decisive counterterrorist assault on the TTP’s remaining territorial strongholds in the tribal areas, particularly in North Waziristan and Khyber.
Naturally, the leadership of the TTP and their Al Qaeda allies knew what was coming, and most of them relocated across the adjacent border into eastern Afghanistan along with more than 6,000 fighters.
From their new bases in Nangarhar province, the TTP continued to harass Pakistani security forces in the northernmost tribal area of Bajaur, but its networks within Pakistan had been so disrupted by intelligence-based counterterrorism operations that it did not threaten the populous hinterland.
The operational capabilities of the TTP were also deeply compromised by internal rifts, which prompted many influential commanders to form breakaway factions, among them the founders of the Afghanistan-based chapter of Daesh.
Nonetheless, it was merely a matter of time before the TTP and other Afghanistan-based insurgent groups fighting the Pakistani state got their act together.
Six years on, however, Islamabad remains publicly obsessed with foreign bogeymen instead of saying publicly what it needed to say in 2015 in order to avert a terrorist comeback when the US inevitably pulled out of Afghanistan: the Afghan Taliban and the TTP are two sides of the same coin.
Behind closed doors in parliament on July 2, the chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency told this to political party leaders and MPs in as many words.
Pakistan’s leaders face difficult decisions about its longstanding and convoluted relationship with the Afghan Taliban, which analyst Hamid Mir justifiably suspects is using the TTP to counteract Pakistani pressure for it to suspend its campaign to seize power in Afghanistan.
If, as powerful army chief of staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa has said on several occasions since February, Pakistan wants to enjoy “normalised” relationships with its neighbours and the wider international community, it should not expect them to be willing to “bury the past and move forward”.
Before that can happen, Pakistan’s competing political elites and institutions have to stop fighting each other and devise a domestic political narrative to justify a divorce from the Taliban and other extremist outfits that continue to make the country a target of sanctions imposed by the US and multilateral organisations like the Financial Action Task Force.
Yes, the domestic and international political blowback of such a divorce would be considerable and the terrorist response would be terrible, particularly in the short term.
But the alternatives — decades more of terrorist attacks, economic stagnation and increased geopolitical isolation — would be far worse.
Courtesy: (TRT World)