Pakistan: Bitten by snakes it reared

Makafat-e-Amal – the Urdu phrase means “the result or consequences of one’s actions”. It best describes and explains the redux of jihadist terrorism in Pakistan. The snakes Pakistan nurtured so assiduously and used for its myopic and reckless strategic agendas are now coming back to bite it. The deception, deception and denials that Pakistan used to cover up its state support and sponsorship of the Taliban in Afghanistan is coming back to haunt it. The logic and excuse Pakistan once cited for defying the United States and not acting against the Taliban is now being used by the Taliban for not helping Pakistan curb the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Baloch separatists. Pakistan’s delusions of grandeur – playing a pivotal role in the defeat of the most powerful military force on earth in Afghanistan – and illusions of how this great ‘victory’ of Islam over Kufr will make it the center of the world have been shattered, ironically enough on the rocks of the Hindu Kush.

The significant spike in terror attacks in the last few months of 2022 is quite ominous. It presages a new wave of jihadist terrorism, which many fear could be far more virulent and damaging than the last wave, which lasted from around 2007 to 2015. Unlike the last wave, this time the jihadists have a state from where they are operating. Also, there is no longer the same international financial and military support available to Pakistan. Adding to Pakistan’s problems, the geography of the jihadist attacks has expanded from the tribal districts (first while FATA) of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the ‘settled districts’ (in particular the southern districts DI Khan, Lakki Marwat and Bannu) and also into both the Baloch and Pashtun areas of the restive Balochistan province. What is more, there are increasing signs that the fires of jihad will cross the Indus into Punjab and Sindh. The recent failed suicide bombing in Islamabad has jolted the Pakistani security policy makers into rethinking and re-examining their security paradigms and to stop living in denial about the organic and inseverable links between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban.

Read | Want peaceful ties but India should be serious: Pakistan

To use former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s evocative words, it seems the Afghan Taliban are indeed breaking ‘the shackles of slavery’, albeit of Pakistan. There are limits to which the Taliban will accommodate Pakistan. Even a regime like Taliban, which isn’t in any political popularity contest, cannot afford to completely disregard the resentment, even hatred, that the majority of Afghans (including many in Taliban ranks who were tortured and bullied by Pakistani spooks and soldiers) feel for Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban will therefore not move in any meaningful way against the TTP or any other group targeting Pakistan. They will either deny their presence or deny any activity by these elements from inside Afghanistan. While the Afghan Taliban will be ever ready to offer their good offices for a dialogue between Pakistan and Pakistani jihadists, they have made it clear that this is Pakistan’s problem to solve.

For the Pakistani generals – “dangerous duffers” in the words of the late human rights activist Asma Jehangir – the penny is finally dropping: the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban are born from the same womb. The TTP has always sworn fealty to the Afghan Taliban. They not only share the same ideology and worldview, they also share ethnic and tribal ties. The TTP has always been a phalanx of the Afghan Taliban – a leverage against the treacherous Pakistanis. The TTP gave refuge to the Afghan Taliban in their bad times; they fought together and died together. If Pakistan provided ‘strategic depth’ to the Afghan Taliban against the US, now Afghanistan gives the TTP and other Pakistani groups ‘strategic depth’ against the Pakistani state. The Pakistanis refuse to process the fact that the former Afghan Republic, which they blamed for sheltering the TTP, had imprisoned thousands of the TTP fighters, all of whom were released by the Afghan Taliban after they captured power in August 2021.

None of this is an epiphany. It has been repeated ad nauseum by Pakistani analysts. And yet, it fell on deaf ears because the generals thought it better to blame the jihadist terrorism in Pakistan on India and make an utterly fictitious distinction between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Now the Pakistani generals are getting a reality check. Their problems are compounded by reports of collusion between the Baloch separatists – secular, progressive, fighting for a Baloch nation and not an Islamic state – and the TTP – radical Islamists, misogynistic and fighting for an emirate. Such an alliance, even if tactical, makes the threat more potent and extends the operational reach of the insurgents.

Cognitive dissonance on the Taliban has made way for terrible political choices by the Pakistan Army. An ill-thought out ceasefire with the TTP gave it time and space to regroup; ‘peace talks’ with the TTP created a perception of power and instilled their fear, terror and dread among the people. The TTP used the opportunity to restart its extortion networks – even provincial ministers and cops were paying it to stay safe. Target killings, ambushes, bombings soon became a daily affair. Meanwhile, there was a spate of attacks in Balochistan by the separatists. And if this was not enough, the Islamic State of Khorasan also mounted its own terror campaign.

The new terror wave is coming even as there is serious political instability in Pakistan, the economy is on the brink of default, and the country’s equity in the international community is quite low – even the Chinese have stopped sinking money into the disastrous and failed China. -Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is also in the cross hairs of both the TTP and the Baloch guerrillas. There is no good option left. Pakistan can take the war into Afghanistan, but that means getting sucked into the Afghan vortex. It can decide to carry out operations inside its own territory, but safe havens in Afghanistan means it will turn into an endless war of attrition, which becomes extremely difficult to fight with an empty treasury. Pakistan can try to make peace with the TTP, but that is akin to surrendering to the Taliban. There is a fourth option: using people power – the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) – to drum up support against the resurgent TTP. But the Pakistan Army considers the PTM a bigger threat than the Taliban.

The bottom line is that if 2022 was bad, 2023 promises to be worse for Pakistan.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, focusing on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Terrorism.)

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