Destitute in Defence in Pakistan

Ongoing friction will persist, fueling attacks in Pakistan and troubling the new government, while volatility along the Af-Pak border rules out any relief.

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Pakistan's Economic Crisis May Worsen In Future [Photo credit: businessworld.in]

In the night of March 25, 2024, four Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) cadres and one Frontier Corps soldier were killed as Security Forces (SFs) thwarted an attack on the PNS Siddique Naval Air Station in the Turbat town of Kech District in Balochistan. An Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) statement disclosed that terrorists attempted to attack PNS Siddique in Turbat and that the attempt was foiled due to the “swift and effective response by the troops ensuring the safety and security of personnel and assets.” PNS Siddique is among the biggest naval air stations in the country. The Majeed Brigade of BLA claimed the responsibility for the attack.

On March 20, 2024, eight BLA cadres and two soldiers were killed after the SFs repulsed an attack on the Gwadar Port Authority (GPA) Complex in the Gwadar town (Gwadar District) of Balochistan. A press release from the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) stated that a group of eight terrorists attempted to enter the Port Authority Colony but were successfully thwarted by SF personnel. The Majeed Brigade of the BLA claimed responsibility for the attack. Located at the center of the city, the GPA Complex has several offices related to the Gwadar Port Authority, law enforcement agencies, and staff houses.

On March 21, BLA released a detailed statement regarding what it called the fourth phase of “Operation Zir Pahazag,” carried out by its elite unit, the Majeed Brigade, against Pakistani intelligence facilities in Gwadar. According to BLA, the operation targeted the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Military Intelligence (MI), allegedly resulting in over 25 deaths among various branches of the SFs. The BLA statement claimed “six personnel, including two commissioned officers of Pakistani military intelligence, eight personnel of ISI and 12 personnel of Pakistani navy and military were eliminated in the attack. Eight fidayeen of BLA Majeed Brigade fought valiantly and made the ultimate sacrifices during today’s attack.”

On March 19, 2024, three Army personnel were killed when terrorists targeted a supply vehicle of the Army using an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) in the Jafari area of Bolan tehsil (revenue unit) in the Kachhi District of Balochistan. The vehicle was supplying rations to a nearby Army post in the area. BLA claimed responsibility for the attack.

On March 16, 2024, seven soldiers, including two officers were killed in a suicide attack on a SF post in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). The ISPR stated that six terrorists were also neutralised in the subsequent clearance operation. The Hafiz Gul Bahadur (HGB) affiliated group Jaish Al-Fursan claimed responsibility for the attack on their affiliated encrypted channels through a ‘spokesperson’ identified as Nasratullah Waziristani.

In addition to these three targeted attacks on Security Establishments in March 2024, there have been several such attacks during first three months of the current year, 2024, prominently including:

  • On February 5, 10 Policemen were killed and six other personnel sustained injuries in a terrorist attack on the Chaudhvan Police Station of the Dera Ismail Khan District in KP. The personnel who lost their lives included six Policemen from the Elite Police unit of Swabi District who were deployed in the area because of multiple attacks in the previous year and to support the local Police during the elections.
  • On January 8, seven Police personnel were killed and 22 others were injured in a bomb attack on a Police vehicle in the Mamond tehsil (revenue unit) of Bajaur District, KP. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP); as well as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) separately claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • On January 2, seven Army personnel were killed when Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF) cadres ambushed a SF convey with improvised explosive device (IED) in the Mand town of Kech District, Balochistan. BLF ‘spokesman’ Gharam Baloch claimed responsibility for the attack in a media statement.

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), in the first 85 days of current year, Pakistan has recorded 115 terrorist/ militant attacks on SFs in which 126 SF personnel have been killed, while 168 others sustained injuries. During the corresponding period of 2023, 188 SF personnel were killed and 109 suffered injuries in 65 incidents. The fatalities in 2023 were dramatically inflated as a result of the January 30, 2023, suicide attack at a mosque inside the Police Lines of Peshawar, in which 83 Policemen were killed. However, the frequency of terrorist/militant attacks on SF personnel has almost doubled, from 65 incidents to 115, in the first 85 days of the current year. With 533 SF fatalities in 2023, Pakistan has already crossed the record of the last 10 years in violence against SFs, with an earlier peak of 339 SF personnel killed in 2015. A maximum of 1,012 fatalities was registered in 2009.

Since the Afghan Taliban gained control in Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, TTP started making deep inroads into KP and the lethality of attacks on SFs in Pakistan’s tribal belt spiked. The attack on Pakistan’s SFs gained further momentum when the Afghan Taliban-initiated and guided talks between the TTP and the Pakistan Government collapsed on November 28, 2022, after TTP announced an end to the then seven month-long cease fire. In a statement released on Umar Media (TTP’s official website), TTP’s ‘Minister of Defence’ “ordered” TTP forces throughout Pakistan “to launch attacks anywhere in the country” in response to Pakistani military operations. The outfit claimed that it chose to end the ceasefire after “the Army and intelligence agencies continue to raid and attack” its forces, “And now our revenge attacks will continue in the whole country.”

While TTP and its allied groups are a major concern for Pakistan’s security establishment, the probability of TTP’s nexus with Baloch insurgent groups in the provision of logistics and training has deepened Pakistan’s worries. Speculation about a TTP-Baloch alliance appeared to receive some confirmation when TTP ‘spokesperson’ Mohammad Khurasani congratulated the Baloch insurgent groups for their attacks in Nuskhi and Panjgur, stating, “The Pakistani Army is carrying out the massacre in Balochistan. We are against the massacre of Balochistan as well as in Waziristan by the Pakistani Army. Our enemy is common.”

Indeed, after the February 2, 2023, twin BLA attacks on the Panjgur and Nuskhi Army camps, the then Federal Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid, citing intelligence reports, told the media on February 3, 2023, that Baloch militants were not capable of launching major attacks in Nuskhi and Panjgur, and that TTP had the capability, experience and latest NATO weapons to launch such attacks. He asserted, further, that there was some understanding between the TTP and Baloch militants, and that both groups had their hideouts in Afghanistan.

The possible nexus between Baloch insurgents and TTP is also visible in the absorption of two Baloch groups into the TTP fold. On April 12, 2023, the TTP claimed that a group from Quetta District, led by Asim Baloch, and another from Kalat District, led Akram Baloch, had joined its ranks. Though the development is worrisome for the security agencies and the government, it is not new. Indeed, a local Baloch jihadist group, led by Mazar Baloch from Makran, Balochistan, had joined the TTP on December 23, 2022, as well.

The Gwadar Port Authority Complex attack of March 20, 2024, and other recent attacks by Baloch insurgent groups on SFs indicate changes in the targeting strategy. While earlier attacks by Baloch groups were of the ‘hit and run’ kind, the recent attacks have been of an audacious nature, attacking SFs in their own bases and establishments, with suicide bombers followed by suicidal assaults, a strategy which TTP has followed for years. This change of tactics by Baloch insurgent groups reinforces the Pakistan security establishment’s conclusions of a TTP – Baloch nexus, possibly directed from Afghan soil.

Meanwhile, frustrated with the Afghanistan government’s ‘ineffectiveness’ in reigning in TTP and other terrorist groups operating from its soil, Pakistan carried out “intelligence-based anti-terrorist operations” inside the border regions of Afghanistan, killing eight people, on March 18, 2024. A press release from Pakistan’s Foreign Office said the prime targets of the operation were terrorists belonging to the Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group, adding that the outfit, along with the TTP, was responsible for multiple terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, resulting in “deaths of hundreds of civilians and law enforcement officials.” The Foreign Office added that the latest such attack took place on March 16, 2024, at a security post in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, which claimed the lives of seven Pakistani soldiers. The Hafiz Gul Bahadur group had claimed responsibility for the attack. Security officials claimed that terrorists of the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group operated from the Afghan side of the border, mostly from Khost.

Reacting to the March 18 Pakistani operation, the Afghan Government carried out multiple retaliatory attacks on security installations along the Pak-Afghan border in the Parachinar area of Kurram District in KP, in which one Army captain was killed, while two soldiers sustained injuries. Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying that they responded to the Pakistani attacks, targeting military centres with heavy weapons. The statement declared, “Once again, Pakistani military and reconnaissance jets have entered Afghanistan’s territory and bombarded the homes of civilians in Barmal of Paktika and Spera of Khost.”

Meanwhile, on March 20, 2024, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif asserted that Pakistan would not tolerate any more cross-border terrorist attacks on its soil. Chairing the Federal Cabinet meeting in Islamabad, Prime Minister Sharif declared that Pakistan desired cordial relations with the neighbouring fraternal countries to promote trade and economic relations, but it was not acceptable that the land of the neighbouring country was used for terrorism in Pakistan.

This friction, however, is unlikely to dissipate, and the surge in attacks inside Pakistan is going to continue to trouble the newly ‘elected’ government, even as the increasing volatility of the Af-Pak border rules out the potential for any respite.

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is a Counter-terrorism Expert on Pakistan at Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) in New Delhi

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