With constant attacks on CPEC projects and Chinese workers, protests breaking out across the nation against economic hardships, and an increase in internal terrorism, Islamabad is being forced to ramp up its military even while it is being spread thin due to increasing crisis points requiring its attention.
On 18 December 2022, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an armed group captured Pakistan`s Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) building in Bannu Cantonment in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The standoff between the armed group and Pakistani security forces lasted up to 60 hours with heavy casualties faced by the Pakistan security forces and a number of TTP fighters killed. Simultaneously, on 18 and 19 December 2022, more reports of groups of TTP fighters raiding police stations in Lakki Marwat near Bannu, figured in the news. The armed group captured various points of security stations and released a warning against the locals from joining the Pakistani law enforcement agencies.
The incident involving the capture of the CTD building by TTP fighters on 18 December is seen as reminiscent of the time when 10 TTP gunmen in military uniforms had charged into a wing of General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi in 2009. The attack claimed the lives of six soldiers, while several were taken hostage. The siege lasted for a day and was terminated under Operation Janbaz conducted by the Pakistani military. Both attacks resembled the way they were executed.
However, it is baffling that the Bannu CTD was located in the cantonment in a rented building and continued to house troops in a temporary facility of a residential area within the cantonment. This questions the quality of the planning and prudence of Pakistan's military.
The attack on the CTD building by TTP followed the visit of Centcom Chief, General Michael E Kurilla, to Pakistan and especially after the US State Department condemned Al-Qaeda In Subcontinent (AQIS) and TTP fighters as “global terrorists”.
Epicentre of terror
Prior to the TTP attacks, a truce had been declared between TTP and the Pakistani government in June 2022. However, the lack of trust between the two sides was evident. According to TTP, the Pakistani military was constantly patrolling around TTP bases in hopes of shelling and raiding them during the ceasefire and, due to the actions of the Pakistani military, it was forced to carry out retaliatory attacks. This also included the attack on November 26th, 2022 in the Lakki Marwat district, near the Waziristan region, which was claimed by TTP. Eventually, on November 28, the TTP called off the cease-fire and declared nationwide attacks on Pakistan.
Most analysts have pegged the Bannu region as the epicentre of terror activities by the TTP. The areas joining Bannu with Thal and Parachinar in the north, and Lakki Marwat and Dera Ismail Khan in the south, are viewed as active hotspots for terror activities. The other important areas are the regions stretching along the Afghan border and extending to Miranshah (North Waziristan) and Wana (South Waziristan). This indicates that the eye of the storm of all terror activities radiates from and around the Bannu regions. The CNN interview of TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud also indicated the same as he argued that all actions taken by the TTP in its interests were solely undertaken on Pakistani soil. On December 20, during the CTD attack, Noor Mehsud called his fighters in the CTD building "comrades" and asked them to not surrender. It is important to mention, that although Mehsud was in the safe haven in Kabul at the time, he continued to dictate orders from Afghanistan, while the operations of TTP were conducted in Pakistan.
This has also raised questions about the possibility of terror activities in Pakistan being masterminded by other TTP leaders such as Haifz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Sadiq Noor, who are presumably living in safe havens in eastern Afghanistan. If so there is no deniability when it comes to confirming the blessings of the Afghan Taliban towards the TTP, who not only provide TTP shelter but have boldly questioned Pakistan in the interest of TTP. This also dispels the notion of the difference between the two Taliban and their close alliance. In the past, Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Afghan Taliban leader, had released a decree stating the Afghan Taliban`s policy was to not engage with the Pakistani military. However, despite TTP's allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, the information was not circulated in Pakistan and TTP continued its own modus operandi to challenge the Pakistani government without intervention from the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan has clearly miscalculated its move in viewing the Taliban as a strategic asset.
In 2004, the Pakistani military contributed to the US "War on Terror" and waged an armed conflict in North Waziristan and FATA. The war was waged between the Pakistani forces and the fighters from Central Asia. Most of the central Asian fighters comprised individuals who were aligned with the veterans of the Afghan war, some who even founded TTP and other militant umbrella networks. Like the Sindhis and Baloch, this act by Pakistan`s military deployment in FATA and Waziristan came to be viewed as forced subjugation by the locals.
The course of this war had serious ramifications for Pakistan`s economy. According to Pakistan`s Ministry of Finance, Pakistan had incurred a loss of $126.79 billion due to its intensifying internal conflict. The outcome of the war was considered to have far more severe impact on Pakistan`s economy as compared to Pakistan`s war with India in 1971. Later in 2006, a peace deal was signed between two tribes in the Kurram agency which was followed by the signing of an agreement with the militants in North Waziristan. This agreement came to be known as the Waziristan Accord. While some documented this agreement as “unprecedented in tribal history”, others perceived that it would aid in reuniting and reorganizing the militants and their operations. However, in 2007, the architects of the accord admitted to the Waziristan truce going wrong.
A strategy gone wrong
Pakistan's earlier strategy was to give in to the TTP's demands for Sharia rule in the tribal areas, but due to a lack of follow-up, the situation was exacerbated. The idea was to mitigate the insurgency to a low-level conflict through calculated appeasement but that strategy seems to have failed.
Currently, Pakistan's economy is in crisis due to a weak rupee, the aftermath of the recent floods affecting its agricultural production, and the energy crisis. Besides various factors affecting its economy, it would be vital for it to take on the challenge of the looming TTP threat. According to various media sources, the TTP is already engaged in setting up a parallel government in several areas with its own ministry/departments. The similarities can be drawn with the Taliban in Afghanistan who employed similar methods to oust the “American puppet government” prior to its takeover in Afghanistan.
It is a wonder if Pakistan would continue to pursue engaging with TTP militarily or choose appeasement with TTP upon the suggestions made by Afghan Taliban. With the exit of the US from Afghanistan, Pakistan lacks the required logistical support on the ground which it previously enjoyed.
In an effort to please the dragon, Pakistan also denied the US bases from being placed on its soil. With constant attacks on CPEC projects and Chinese workers, protests breaking out across the nation against economic hardships, and an increase in internal terrorism, Islamabad is being forced to ramp up its military even while it is being spread thin due to increasing crisis points requiring its attention. In this context the interview of Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif that Pakistan had "learned our lesson, and we want to live in peace with India" while calling for a "serious and sincere" dialogue with India comes as no surprise.
(The writer is an Indian research analyst specializing in the AF/Pak region and counter-terrorism. Views are personal. She can be reached at email@example.com)