The killing fields of Pakistan

Our neighbour has been through an upward spiral of terrorism for over two decades. With Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan rearing its head again, the region is in for more turbulence
The killing fields of Pakistan
Mandar Pardikar

One of my favourite pastimes while visiting the UAE is to meet some of the Pakistani cab drivers who abound in Dubai; wonderful, feisty people who have no qualms about speaking to Indians. Many come from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan and if questioned appropriately, without obvious malice, they are always willing to tell you of things back home; especially those related to the scourge of terrorism that has hit their homeland and refuses to go away.

They talk of the Pakistan Army’s methodology of conducting counter-terrorist operations in the areas of their homeland after the Lal Masjid incident of 2007. Post that operation, the terrorist group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was formed with the aim to establish Sharia law in Pakistan and overthrow the government. The TTP’s ideology blends militant jihadism with a desire to impose strict Islamic governance.

It was a virtual blowback from the policy Pakistan had followed of promoting a violent form of political Islam that could be exploited in conjunction with the sentiments associated with those of the trans-national mujahideen who fought and defeated the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1981-89. The target had been India and more specifically Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), but that is a different story.

The blowback led the Pakistan Army to use heavy ground and air weapons during its operations. That resulted in enormous collateral damage. The killing of innocent people, including women and children, the destruction of educational institutions as a result of these operations, together with the casualties inflicted by suicide attacks by terrorists, had wide ramifications on internal security.

Those I spoke to rued the idea that the Pakistan Army was doing this for their security. They were unequivocal that the last ‘militant’, as per them, was impossible to eliminate because waiting in the lines were thousands of young men who were sufficiently motivated to avenge what they had witnessed. When I spoke to them of the Indian Army’s record in J&K and elsewhere, and informed them that no Indian aircraft had ever flown with weapons aboard to support our army, they actually expressed their appreciation.

In the gory world of terrorism, things come a full circle. Pakistan has been through a spiral of terrorist violence, both sectarian and political, for over 20 years. There was no one sponsoring this violence, it was all home grown as a result of intense mishandling. Like the Israeli Defence Forces, the Pakistan Army’s concept of counter-terror (CT) operations has all along been the eventual crushing of the movement by eliminating the last terrorist.

The professionals there do not believe this is something possible and a far better way is to control the violence, eliminate the root causes, reach out to the people to ‘on board’ them and promote welfare and development to remove the antipathy they carry. This of course would accompany a strong campaign of counter radicalisation. The irony in Pakistan and its army is that there are  more people ready to promote radicalisation than to counter it.

On June 22, 2024, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif announced the launch of yet another operation (Operation Azm-e-Istehkam) to neutralise the menace that the TTP and other cohorts have created. The TTP had apparently been neutralised by a series of operations ending with the four-year-old Operation Zarb-e-Azb (2014-18) after Operation Rah-e-Nijat (2009) had failed to deliver. Ironically, there was a time in 2007-08 that Pakistan’s Frontier Corps launched in CT operations had company-size strength of soldiers being captured by terrorists.

The US provided Pakistan a $750-million package for equipping and arming the Frontier Corps, which eventually turned a new leaf and started to deliver results. At one time, one-third of the Pakistan Army’s regular formations were on CT operations, some of them redeployed even from the J&K LoC, which is always a priority sector. By 2018, the Pakistan Army leadership claimed to have broken the TTP’s back. Right through this period, the Afghan Taliban desisted from openly assisting the TTP; it anyway did not have the resources to do much.

However, since 2021, after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban assumed a different strategy. It contests the Durand Line as the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and quite transparently supports the TTP. Imran Khan in his heyday attempted to negotiate with TTP, hoping to bring about a cessation of violent activity and release of detainees. It did not fructify.

The TTP has returned with Afghan support to once again cause mayhem. In 2023 alone, 1,524 violence-related fatalities and 1,463 injuries from 789 terror attacks occurred. Many of these are in Baluchistan and have specifically targeted Chinese workers and staff on various projects of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

After a recent visit to China by PM Sharif, apparently a form of displeasure was conveyed to him regarding the insufficiency of effort by Pakistan to secure the CPEC projects. With a combination of Chinese concerns and the rising graph of terror spiralling out of control, the Pakistan Army appears to have few options. The Afghan Taliban is no longer under its control. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, and they are exercising muscle power to wrest control of the Af-Pak region considered so important for the spread of political Islam.

The US is worried too, as it depends upon Pakistan to prevent a surge in the Taliban’s influence. Internally, there are objections from different political quarters and for good reason, because the Pakistan Army’s methods are unlikely to resolve the issues. Under Chinese pressure, some results will accrue in terms of neutralisation of a few terrorists. With TTP under full support of the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan defence minister indicating even hot pursuit could be on the cards against terrorists crossing the Af-Pak border, this subregion is likely to see a fair amount of turbulence.

The Pakistan Army could be pulled into this in a far bigger way than it has imagined. It is also seeking financial assistance and weaponry to pursue what it projects as US and Chinese interests. With this, Pakistan is likely to be torn between its eastern and western borders, with its internal region not free from threats either. Dubai’s cabbies will have more to tell us the next time. 

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)

Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir.

(Views are personal)

(atahasnain@gmail.com)

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