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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

TTP’s Metastasized Offensive and Pakistan’s National Security Challenge

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has reemerged as a formidable threat, posing significant challenges to Pakistan's security landscape. Following the Afghan Taliban's reconquest of Afghanistan, the TTP resumed its offensive, raising concerns about their safe haven across the Durand Line.

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has plagued Pakistan for a while already, but after having previously been on the backfoot following two large-scale anti-terrorist operations over the last decade, the group resumed its offensive in the two years since the Afghan Taliban’s reconquest of that neighboring country. Islamabad accuses Kabul of hosting this ideologically similar group, which it denies, but observers beg to differ since there are credible reasons to believe that the TTP has a safe haven across the Durand Line.

Chief Of Army Staff (COAS) General Asim Munir repeated these allegations in the aftermath of the TTP’s latest attack against the Zhob military base in largely Pashtun-populated Northern Balochistan last week. Dawn newspaper analyzed that development as the opening of a new terrorist front against Pakistan, which they elaborated on in an opinion piece here. It follows a related one from early May where experts warned that the TTP had begun forging a nexus with Baloch separatists and other militants.

Read more: Afghan FM urges Pakistan, TTP to sit together for dialogue

Understanding the matter better

The abovementioned events are already disturbing enough as they are and suggest that the TTP’s terrorist threat to Pakistan is indeed metastasizing, the observation of which is lent even more credence after another recent incident. The Pashtun town of Parachinar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (KPK) Kurram District briefly slipped into a de facto state of civil war over a local land dispute, which took on Sunni-Shia sectarian dimensions that residents and elders claimed were part of a preplanned TTP provocation.

Peace has since returned to the region as a result of the armed forces brokering a one-year peace agreement between the warring parties, but what’s problematic is that it took over a week for this to happen. Prior to then, the state essentially lost its writ over this border territory that’s surrounded on three sides by Afghanistan. Taken together with the Zhob military base attack, there’s no doubt that the TTP has come back with a bang, which poses a serious threat to Pakistan.

Read more: Najam Sethi faces backlash for absurd tweet on PSL and TTP attacks

It’s no longer just shooting at border guards or attacking bases in KPK, but is now stirring up sectarian conflict at the local level as part of preplanned provocations in parallel with expanding the geographic scope of its attacks into largely Pashtun-populated Northern Balochistan. On top of that, there are grounds to regard the earlier report about its emerging terrorist nexus in that last-mentioned region as accurate, which is made even more troubling by the latest statement from a top Taliban representative.

Suhail Shaheen provocatively reaffirmed his group’s refusal to recognize the Durand Line as the de facto international border in an interview that he gave to Arab News where described it simply as a line and said “that is enough to say what is its status.” There’s nothing new about this position per se, but it came during the climax of the Parachinar clashes that the TTP was accused of sparking. The message being sent thus appears to be that the Afghan Taliban is taking credit for that incident via its ideological allies.

Although he predictably denied that group’s presence in his country, Parachinar’s residents and elders claimed per the previously cited report that terrorists had broken the border fence to invade their region and slaughter the locals as part of the de facto civil-sectarian war that their region briefly slipped into. Had the top military-intelligence brass not been distracted by the hunt for political enemies at home, they might have been able to detect and deter the TTP’s preplanned terrorist provocation.

Building upon that observation, it’s not a coincidence that the threat posed by this group metastasized shortly after the all-out nationwide crackdown against the opposition, which convinced the TTP that there’s never been a better time for them to go on the HybridWarfare offensive. With Pakistan’s military-intelligence structures abruptly being ordered to focus much more on the home front, the window of opportunity opened for the TTP, thus directly leading to the latest developments.

These terrorists presently pose the greatest threat to average Pakistanis since the Parachinar precedent proves that the TTP can successfully spark sectarian conflict via strategically preplanned provocations, which could be catastrophic if subsequent attacks target the more densely populated hinterland. Punjab and Sindh can’t be as easily infiltrated as KPK and Balochistan, but the group’s existing presence and growing network of supporters in the latter two can lead to it expanding deeper into the country.

The top military-intelligence brass should reflect on the significance of the past week’s events and reconsider whether it’s truly worth continuing the all-out nationwide crackdown against the opposition. Quite clearly, Pakistan’s objective national security interests were neglected as a result of this newfound purely politicized crusade, which led to the TTP’s threat metastasizing instead of being preemptively thwarted like could have otherwise happened had the authorities not been distracted.

For that reason, the top military-intelligence brass should abandon this witch hunt and redouble their complementary structures’ efforts to safeguard their people from terrorism, which could save countless more lives than trying to snuff out a single political party. The failure to do so recklessly puts average Pakistanis at risk and could even pose a threat to national unity in the event that the TTP replicates its Parachinar-like sectarian provocations in Punjab and/or Sindh.

Having said that, the scenario of cross-border operations that was first discussed by many in early January isn’t sufficient in and of itself for ensuring security in the face of this metastasized terrorist threat. What’s needed first and foremost is to root out those sleeper cells already present in the country, neutralize their growing network of supporters, and compellingly counter the TTP’s ideology, all while keeping a close eye on potential suspects and at-risk individuals, though without violating their rights.

It would be counterproductive if this well-intended recalibration of the top military-intelligence brass’ policy resulted in the optics of a crackdown against Pashtuns, let alone an actual one where members of that community are rounded up and disappeared like some Baloch have reportedly been. This must be avoided at all costs in order to not inadvertently exacerbate preexisting identity fault lines that could then create even more inroads for the TTP and others to divide and rule Pakistan.

The challenge ahead is a formidable one that will require the military intelligence services to fully focus on this newly metastasized terrorist threat in order to emerge victorious, which in turn necessitates their top brass giving them the order to abandon the all-out nationwide crackdown against the opposition. Pakistan’s prior large-scale anti-terrorist operations succeeded precisely because those carrying them out weren’t distracted by political witch hunts, which COAS Munir would do well not to forget.