How The Taliban Unravelled Pakistan’s ‘Strategic Depth’ In 2022

By Editor Jan1,2023

2022 was undoubtedly one of the most turbulent and tumultuous in Pakistan’s history. While many would say this was because of the political instability that gripped the country since April, there are other geostrategic forces that continue to negatively affect Pakistan’s security and stability. Any normal, functional nation-state would be able to deal with these challenges. But with Pakistan’s propensity to hold on to erroneous worldviews and not admit to any mistakes (much less begin to fix them), it is becoming more and more obvious that Islamist militants and violent extremists are returning to haunt Pakistan.

The foremost of the security challenges to the nuclear-armed country is the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP. The group has been gaining strength ever since Noor Wali Mehsud became its leader, and splinter factions have rejoined the core group over the past years. After the Afghan Taliban took Kabul in August 2021, the Pakistani establishment believed that it would be handsomely rewarded in the form of a neutered TTP. These hopes were ill-founded, and proved to be ineffectual as the TTP – like all previous times – reneged from all pretenses of a ceasefire with the Pakistani state by the end of November 2022.

Even though a nominal ceasefire was in place throughout 2022, and negotiations between the TTP and Pakistani interlocutors – mediated by the Afghan Taliban – continued in Kabul, terror attacks were still being carried out by TTP affiliates and other violent non-state actors during that time. However, responsibility for these attacks was claimed by – or blamed on – other groups, such as the Hafiz Gul Bahadur (HGB) network, or Ittehad-ul-Mujahideen. This was used as an excuse to continue negotiating with those factions of the TTP who were apparently interested in peace, not war.

To further dash the hopes of any negotiated settlement between Pakistan and TTP, reports emerged of renewed militant activity in KP’s tribal and settled regions, including threatening demands followed by collection of extortion money from wealthy citizens – even ministers – of KP. Since August, the citizens of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been protesting against the return of terrorists in Swat Valley and other parts of the province.

At least sixty such civic protests have been reported during the past five months by independent sources. However, these organic public protests have received little attention and muted coverage in the mainstream Pakistani media.

For much of 2022, Pakistan appeared to continue a “talk-fight” approach with the TTP: it negotiated with those militant commanders who wanted to negotiate, while those TTP leaders who were averse to negotiations ended up being mysteriously assassinated in Afghanistan. Omar Khalid Khorasani may be considered an example of the latter.

By September, the TTP had issued orders to its militant cells to retaliate wherever they deemed necessary, as it blamed the Pakistani state for carrying out offensive military operations under the pretext of a ceasefire. But by the end of November, the TTP’s deputy emir and ‘defense minister’ Mufti Muzahim issued an order instructing all TTP operatives to attack Pakistan at will.

The Afghan Taliban have been unable – or, more likely, unwilling – to restrain the TTP and prevent it from attacking Pakistan. In fact, Afghan Taliban “border forces” attacked Chaman with heavy weapons twice in early December, causing multiple civilian casualties.

It is highly questionable as to how India would be able to support TTP while the Afghan Taliban – presumed to be Pakistan’s “strategic assets” for decades – are in power in Kabul.

In case full-scale hostilities break out between TTP and the Pakistan Army, this time the Afghan Taliban are expected to support the Pakistani Taliban, with whom they have strong, time-tested battle-hardened links. And Taliban narratives on Pakistan continue to be more cohesive, and ‘more Islam-oriented’, than Pakistani narratives on Afghanistan and terrorism.

It is sad – or funny, depending on who you talk to – to hear how TTP is still being financed and supported by India; even though this is the same TTP that was being negotiated with since late 2021. It is also highly questionable as to how India would be able to support TTP while the Afghan Taliban – presumed to be Pakistan’s “strategic assets” for decades – are in power in Kabul. The existing safe havens of TTP in Afghanistan are more or less ensured by the Afghan Taliban. While rational observers can see these glaring inconsistencies, Pakistanis by and large still remain satiated in their whataboutery and conspiracy theories.

It goes without saying that an incorrect evaluation of the threat, and an inaccurate assessment of why the threat is persistently growing, will prevent a sustainable resolution of the security challenge even in the medium term. We can now clearly see that TTP has emerged yet again, in spite of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad, and countless intelligence-based operations or “IBOs”.

Most recently, the TTP have revamped their organizational structure, and revealed that they are now setting up shadow governorates for substantial areas in KP province as well as in Balochistan. This is eerily reminiscent of how the Afghan Taliban reorganized themselves before their ultimate assault in 2021 against the now-defunct Afghan Republic.

The Islamic State, or Daesh, also continues to pose a serious asymmetric threat to Pakistan, and to the region at large. Its ‘Khorasan’ franchise, ISKP, is one of the most deadly terror groups operating in the world. On 2 December, Pakistan’s top diplomat in Kabul, chargé d’affaires Ubaidullah Nizamani, was attacked by ISKP gunmen firing at the embassy from a nearby building.

ISKP later claimed responsibility for this attack on the Pakistan embassy in Kabul. Pakistan’s Foreign Office, however, said that it will “investigate the claim“.

Compounding the above-mentioned threat from extremist militants, separatist groups in Balochistan have also accelerated the quantum and pace of their asymmetric attacks across Pakistan’s most impoverished province. During the month of December, multiple attacks were reported in multiple locations each day: many of the claims of responsibility were issued by banned groups like BLA or BLF.

On 25 December, an IED blast in Kahan, Balochistan, cost the lives of multiple Pakistan Army soldiers, including a captain. A few days later, on 29 December, three more soldiers rendered the ultimate sacrifice in a gunfight with terrorists in Kurram tribal district.

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In spite of the clearly deteriorating security situation in the western provinces, Pakistanis mostly remained fixated with the political drama going on in the country. Even if concern was raised whenever an incident came to light, discussion on substantive and meaningful components of the issue was drowned out by manufactured narratives which have now proven false, or by political point-scoring and the vitriolic blame game that has become characteristic of Pakistani ‘democracy’ today. Instead of tackling terrorist groups and their violent extremist ideologies, the PDM blames Imran Khan for the resurgence of terror, while Imran Khan and the PTI blame the “imported government” for the same. Meanwhile, militants keep wantonly attacking Pakistani security forces and law enforcement agents.

Back on Sunday 18 December, suspected TTP-affiliated militants who were being held at a previously unknown CTD internment facility in Bannu cantonment managed to overpower the staff and take control of that facility. The incident went on for multiple days, and eventually required an intervention by Pakistan Army SSG special forces, to be brought under control. However, netizens noticed how reporting of the Bannu CTD incident was manipulated and stifled, perpetuating uncertainty about what really happened, when, how, and most importantly, why.

The Islamabad suicide bombing of 23 December woke Pakistan up to the reality of the serious threat that terrorism and extremism continue to present. This incident could neither be ignored by the mainstream media, nor be refuted as “fake” by armies of online trolls. If the Pakistani establishment and their minions were planning to trivialize this attack as well, they were prevented in doing so as the US embassy, followed by others, issued threat alerts to their officials and citizens on heightened security concerns in the federal capital of Pakistan.

In this entire backdrop – of a slow but sure metastasis of the asymmetric and sub-conventional threats to Pakistan’s security over the past year – the top brass of the Pakistan Army met for two days at the corps commanders’ conference in GHQ Rawalpindi, presided over by army chief General Syed Asim Munir. An ISPR statement said that army commanders resolved to uproot the menace of terrorism “in accordance with the aspirations of the people of Pakistan”.

The next day, the army chief met with prime minister Shehbaz Sharif, who then called a meeting of the National Security Committee to take stock of the security situation and reaffirm the government’s resolve to combat terrorism and extremism.

Pakistan’s top civil and military leadership seems to have understood that terrorism and extremism remain existential threats to the country’s stability and security, but uncertainty still persists on what they plan to do about it.

On 31 December, the TTP announced that it had carried out no less than 367 attacks across Pakistan during 2022, also claiming to have killed more than a thousand people in these incidents.

In the absence of a comprehensive policy response or holistic military operation against terrorist cells and sympathizers, it is being hypothesized that a persistent “lack of national cohesiveness” is preventing the military establishment from taking the fight to the terrorists. Some of the credit for this may be ascribed to Imran Khan’s virulent anti-establishment narrative since April 2022. The dilapidated condition of the economy is also to blame, since fewer resources are available for prosecuting a sustained counterterrorism campaign.

Beyond the western border, the Afghan Taliban have failed to prevent Afghanistan’s descent into chaos, as the wartorn country has again become a global hub for violent non-state actors. The jihadi ecosystem in Afghanistan threatens all of its neighbors, and Pakistan most presently. Pakistan’s Afghan border fence does not seem to be living up to the promise of keeping unwanted elements contained in Afghanistan.

Many are quick to remind Pakistan that when the Taliban took over Afghanistan, then-Prime Minister Imran Khan congratulated them for “breaking their chains of slavery”. It is now being retorted that the Pakistani Taliban are coming to break their (and our) “chains of slavery”.

During 2022, Pakistan’s decades-long security-centric policy of “strategic depth” has clearly transformed into a prelude to “strategic death“. The priorities of the state, and of society, are still utterly skewed; if terror attacks cannot get Pakistanis to face a belated reality check, then nothing else would either.

As 2023 looks to be a tough and violent year for Pakistan, there is little hope that the deeply fractured polity would find any way to deal with the toxic trends of intolerance, extremism, and irrationality which continue to pervade the society at large.

January 01,2023


By Editor

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