Pakistan: Sustained Assault

The haphazard approach to counter terrorism by successive Pakistan Administrations have given the terrorist outfits, especially the TTP, ample opportunities to target the country where it hurts most.

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A man walks past a damaged building following a blast in Peshawar, Pakistan, Dec. 5, 2023. (Photo by Umar Qayyum/Xinhua)

On December 15, 2023, eight persons – three Policemen, including a sub-inspector, and five terrorists, including a suicide bomber – were killed during a clash, when terrorists tried to enter the District Police headquarter in Police Lines area of Tank Town (Tank District) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Two attackers were killed by Police while the third was cornered and blew himself up. A newly formed terrorist group, Ansarul Jihad, claimed responsibility for the attack.

On December 12, 2023, at least 23 Army soldiers were killed when a group of six suicide bombers attacked a Security Forces (SFs) complex in the Daraban area of Dera Ismail Khan District in KP. According to the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), “the attempt to enter the post was effectively thwarted which forced the terrorists to ram an explosive-laden vehicle into the post, followed by a suicide bombing attack”. The resulting blasts led to the collapse of the building, causing multiple casualties. All six terrorists were killed. The Tehreek-i-Jihad Pakistan (TJP), an affiliate with Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attack.

In addition to these two targeted attacks on Security Establishments in December 2023, there have been several such attacks in the recent past, prominently including:

  • November 4, 2023: Nine terrorists were killed as the SFs in the early hours neutralised a terrorist attack on the Mianwali Training Air Base of the Pakistan Air Force at Mianwali (Mianwali District) of Punjab. The ISPR said that the terrorists were “neutralised while entering the base… However, during the attack, some damage to three already grounded aircraft and a fuel bowser also occurred.” The TJP claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • July 12, 2023: nine Army soldiers, five terrorists and one civilian were killed when terrorists attacked the Zhob Garrison in Zhob town (Zhob District) of Balochistan. “Initial attempt of terrorists to sneak into the facility was checked by soldiers on duty,” the ISPR disclosed, adding that the terrorists were soon cornered in a small area near the boundary, following a heavy exchange of fire.
  • February 17, 2023: Five terrorists and four others, including two rangers and one Policeman, were killed, and 18 people were injured in an operation in the night, when terrorists stormed into the Karachi Police Chief’s building in the Shahrah-e-Faisal area. At least three terrorists blew themselves up, while two were gunned down in the shootout. TTP claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • January 30, 2023: At least 84 persons, including 83 Policemen, were killed and another 220 were injured, in a suicide blast inside a mosque in the Police Lines area of Peshawar, the provincial capital of KP. Two TTP leaders, Sarbakaf Mohmand and Omar Mukaram Khurasani, claimed that the attack was “revenge” for the death of Khalid Khorasani, the chief of TTP’s splinter group, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), in the Barmal District? of ?Paktika Province of Afghanistan on August 7, 2022. However, TTP central ‘spokesman’ Muhammad Khorasani denied any involvement in the attack.
  • December 18, 2022: A detained terrorist overpowered a constable at the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) Complex in Bannu Cantonment (Bannu District) and, after snatching the constable’s weapon, freed 34 other detained terrorists. “Immediately after the seizure of the complex, two terrorists were killed, three were arrested, and two security forces personnel were injured in the exchange of fire,” the ISPR DG Major General Ahmed Sharif Chaudhry disclosed. “Efforts to induce the terrorists to surrender unconditionally continued for the next two days,” he disclosed, adding that the terrorists demanded a safe passage to Afghanistan. On December 20, the SFs took action against the terrorists after they refused to surrender. During the operation – fierce exchange of fire between terrorists and security forces – 25 terrorists were killed. Three terrorists were arrested while seven surrendered. Three soldiers were killed while 10 other soldiers, including two officers, were injured in the operation. TTP claimed responsibility for the incident.

In addition to these major attacks specifically targeting Security establishments, terrorists have intensified their attacks against SFs deployed on the ground throughout country. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Pakistan has already recorded the highest number of SF fatalities, 517, in a year since 2013, when there were 665 such fatalities. After touching a recent low of 137 in 2019, SF fatalities have been on a continuous rise.

According to the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) report of October 1, 2013, the first nine months of 2023 reveal some alarming trends with regard to SF losses in the war against terrorism. 386 personnel — including 137 army personnel and 208 policemen — have lost their lives in the first nine months of 2023 in the fight against terrorism, largely in KP and Balochistan, an eight-year high. 

The surge in SF fatalities in Pakistan can be traced back to the increase in power and influence of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan after the signing of the Doha Agreement of February 2020, and the subsequent return of the Taliban to power in Kabul in August 2021. Indeed, on November 8, 2023, caretaker Prime Minister (PM) Anwaarul Haq Kakar observed that there has been an increase in terrorist incidents in Pakistan since the interim Afghan Government came to power in 2021. Addressing the media in Islamabad, he asserted,

After the establishment of the interim Afghan government in August 2021, we had a strong hope that there would be long-term peace in Afghanistan… Strict action would be taken against Pakistan-opposing groups, especially the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, and they would absolutely not be allowed to use Afghan soil against Pakistan. But unfortunately, after the establishment of the interim Afghan govt, there has been a 60 per cent increase in terror incidents and 500 per cent rise in suicide attacks in Pakistan.

However, on the same day, Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief Taliban spokesman in Afghanistan, rejected Prime Minister Kakar’s allegations, and argued that his Government was not responsible for maintaining peace in Pakistan, nor was it behind the insecurity in the neighbouring country. “They should address their domestic problems instead of blaming Afghanistan for their failure,” Mujahid declared, “the Islamic Emirate does not allow anyone to use the territory of Afghanistan against Pakistan”.

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, 2022m when 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.”

Earlier, on November 8, 2023, during the Senate’s debate on acts of terrorism and the expulsion of illegal immigrants from Pakistan, the Leader of the House and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Ishaq Dar blamed an understanding reached with Kabul in 2018, and the subsequent release of hardcore TTP terrorists, for the surge in acts of terrorism in the country. Speaking in the Senate, Dar argued that the PML-N government, soon after coming into power, had taken concrete steps against the menace of terrorism, which bore fruit, but regretted that terrorism reared its ugly head again after “a policy of U-turn” was adopted in 2018.

The haphazard approach to counter terrorism by successive Pakistan Administrations have given the terrorist outfits, especially the TTP, ample opportunities to target the country where it hurts most. With the Pakistan in economic and political turmoil, the Afghan Taliban backed TTP, as well as other terrorist and insurgent formations in the country, will find rising opportunities to inflict grievous harm on the increasingly fragile state and its institutions.

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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