What the Peshawar attacks mean for Pakistan’s changing jehadi map

The deadly suicide attack on January 30 inside a mosque in Peshawar’s Police Lines area, resulting in a large number of casualties, is as brazen as the 2014 attacks on the Army Public School in the same city. The forces unleashed by the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan in 2021 have fully engulfed the Af-Pak region. While the “fragility” of Afghanistan was well-known, the violence in Pakistan has reached alarming levels in less than 18 months. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) network and Baloch groups threw up an unprecedented challenge before the Pakistan forces in 2022 which is nowhere near getting resolved through peace overtures or kinetic actions. The relations between the Taliban and Pakistan have become more acrimonious, despite the Pakistan deep state’s favourite, the Haqqani network, holding key positions in the Taliban power structure. The recent big attacks on Pakistani and Chinese targets in Afghanistan have shattered the myth of strategic depth for Pakistan in Afghanistan. The Pakistan army — also facing a hostile political and propaganda war at home — is looking increasingly helpless in containing the growing violence which has reached the big cities, including Islamabad.

Despite the so-called months-long ceasefire between the TTP and the Pakistan forces, mediated by the Taliban, in 2022, the TTP claimed 1,015 casualties in the armed forces, in 367 attacks mounted mainly across the tribal areas. The group has posted the names of one Colonel, four Majors and six Captains killed in action. In December alone, the TTP claimed six suicide attacks on the forces and held a number of persons hostage for two days inside a counter-terrorism centre in Bannu, causing heavy casualties to the commandos. In the same month, for the first time, the TTP used a female bomber along with a male one for a suicide attack in Islamabad. In addition, in 2022, the Baloch groups claimed 800 fatalities in the armed forces in over 500 attacks across Balochistan.

On September 4, 2021, a “confident” Pakistan intelligence chief visited Kabul, purportedly to assist the Taliban in choosing a government — raising the expectation of a Pakistan proxy ruling Kabul. The then Prime Minister had called the withdrawal of the US troops the “end of slavery”. Interestingly, the TTP also re-pledged allegiance to the Taliban’s Amir-ul-Momineen, Haibatullah Akhunzada. Since then, the tensions between the Taliban and Pakistan army have visibly escalated with Pakistan frequently accusing Afghanistan of not doing anything about the safe havens of the TTP and the Baloch groups on Afghan soil. For more than a year, Pakistan forces have been shelling areas in Afghanistan, in “hot pursuit” of terrorists, drawing warnings from the Taliban. Since November, the Taliban and Pakistan forces have clashed every month along the Durand line. A few days ago, the Afghan Ministry of Defence reportedly raised alerts about 7,000 Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP) cadres trained in Pakistan waiting to enter Afghanistan.

In Kabul, in December, the Pakistan embassy and a hotel used by the Chinese were attacked. Though both attacks were claimed by the ISKP, it is clear that Pakistani and Chinese interests in Afghanistan are threatened under Taliban rule. Chinese targets have already been hit a few times in Pakistan, leading to repeated demands by China for the “fool-proof” security of its personnel and facilities in the country. The growing violence has made it difficult for the deep state to strike deals and divide the TTP as easily as it has done since 2007.

However, given the pool of proxies, the deep state has in the jihadi world of the tribal belt and Punjab, old and new faces are surfacing to tap jihadi cadres in a bid to redirect them to other theatres. Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) is unleashing propaganda about other theatres, such as Kashmir and Arakan, and recycling old videos of ideologues, including of Umar Farooq, Asim Umar and Ilyas Kashmiri. The new videos of AQIS chief, Usama Mehmood and well-known Burmese-origin Pakistan national, Abu Zar al Burmi too have appeared on social media. Abu Zar has a long history of mentoring Central Asian groups, as a close ally of the Taliban. He briefly pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2014 but retracted it in less than a year. His close connection to the deep state has been well-documented by Pakistan experts. The deep state-run ISKP is releasing anti-Taliban propaganda in South Asian and Central Asian languages, and now in Arabic. However, such propaganda is also focussing on countries far and wide. Except for Usama Mehmood, the leadership of AQIS and ISKP are unknown, making it difficult to bring them under any sanctions regime and link them to the deep state the way the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Toiba etc could be previously. Such proxies are, thus, well suited to claim small and big attacks in the region, on regional and global targets.

The dissolution of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab assemblies is likely to further weaken the state’s response to the growing violence, especially in the tribal belt. Though experts continue to debate the serious economic situation and bitter politicking within the context of civilian-military relations in Pakistan, it’s the dire security situation which puts real constraints on the domestic and external actors wishing to engage with the powers in Pakistan. Having to secure two borders now, the army does not have the bandwidth to start large-scale operations in Pakistan. Expectedly, China and Pakistan continue to closely coordinate their direct and indirect moves, including offering tactical concessions, such as through the UN designation of LeT operative, Abdul Rehman Makki, as a “global terrorist” or limited peace overtures. However, the growing chaos in the Af-Pak region is likely to cast its shadow far and wide over the coming months and years.

The writer is an IPS officer. Views are personal

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