Pakistan’s security challenges necessitate a new approach

On January 30, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device inside a packed mosque, killing at least 100 people and injuring more than 225 in the city of Peshawar, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province near the border with Afghanistan. The attack, one of the worst to hit Pakistan in recent years, occurred deep inside the Police Lines area, a high-security zone home to the region’s Police Secretariat.

While a commander affiliated with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or the Pakistani Taliban, took to Twitter shortly afterwards to claim responsibility for the attack, a spokesperson for the outfit subsequently refuted allegations of the group’s involvement. Either way, the scale of Monday’s bombing, which comes on the heels of a sharp rise in terrorist incidents in Pakistan in recent months, does not bode well for Pakistan’s leaders as they attempt to grapple with multiple crises at home.

The latest attack now underscores the need for a comprehensive review of the country’s counterterrorism strategies. But against a backdrop of mounting socioeconomic instability and political polarisation, it is unclear whether Pakistan’s leaders will be able to effectively tackle the country’s growing security challenges.

A failed security strategy

Even if the TTP, which has waged an on-again, off-again insurgency against the Pakistani state for almost 15 years, does choose to distance itself from Monday’s heinous attack, there is no denying that in recent months the group and its affiliates have ramped up their targeting of police and law-enforcement officials as they have attempted to expand operational activities beyond the province. It is estimated that the TTP has carried out close to 100 attacks since November.

Pakistan’s decision-makers say that militants including the TTP have benefitted enormously from havens made available to them in neighbouring Afghanistan following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in 2021.

The Afghan Taliban’s reluctance to act against the TTP stems from the fact that it views the outfit as a useful tool against the Pakistani state. By giving the TTP shelter, the Afghan Taliban can assert its own strategic autonomy vis-à-vis Pakistan’s security establishment. And Islamabad’s leverage over the Afghan Taliban, while limited to begin with, has only waned since the group took over Kabul.

Because of that, Pakistani officials have resorted to a carrot-and-stick policy. On the one hand, they have tried to negotiate with the TTP in closed-door talks hosted by the Afghan Taliban, and on the other, they have carried out a series of covert, intelligence-based operations deep inside Afghanistan, targeting individual TTP commanders.

While these operations have ostensibly seen some tactical successes, such as the killing of senior TTP commander Khalid Khorasani last year, overall the dual strategy does not quite seem to have worked as Pakistan had intended. In November, the TTP abruptly ended a five-month-long ceasefire after the Pakistan Army stepped up counterterror operations in the border area. And in the first statement issued on Monday, the TTP alleged that the attack on Peshawar’s Police Lines was, in fact, retaliation for Khorasani’s killing.

Negotiations have also failed to produce anything but short-term ceasefires, as the TTP has held fast to its declared goal of the imposition of its strict interpretation of Islamic law across the entire country, along with a reversal of the country’s 2018 merger of the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Tackling multiple crises

Unfortunately, instead of eliciting a united response geared towards eliminating terrorism, resurgent violence across Pakistan has only compounded already deeply worrying socio-political and ethnic fault lines.

Earlier in January, the provincial assemblies of Pakistan’s two largest provinces, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, both held by former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s opposition party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, were dissolved in a tactical bid to pressurise the ruling coalition in Islamabad to call for early elections. While caretaker cabinets have since been sworn in to lead both provinces until elections can be held in the next 90 days, there is every chance that the TTP will try to exploit an ill-timed political vacuum.

Against this vacuum, the strategic targeting of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s civilian law-enforcement agencies by militant groups seems cunningly calculated: to demonstrate the provincial government’s state weaknesses and inability to counter violent militancy, and to rally terrorist recruitment by the TTP and its affiliates.

As Pakistan prepares for both provincial and national elections later this year, an all-too-familiar consequence of this initial ground-clearing by terrorist groups will likely be heightened political violence. In the country’s 2013 general elections, the TTP notoriously targeted the leadership of several political parties. The group’s violence was especially severe in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which in turn made it difficult for many parties to campaign effectively.

Pakistan’s current political crisis is compounded by an economic one. This month Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves dropped to their lowest point since 2014. Last week Pakistani cities suffered a nationwide power outage, plunging an already-sick economy into darkness.

Pakistan’s cash-strapped leaders are fervently hoping that the International Monetary Fund will disburse a $1.1bn loan. But talks with the international financial institution have stalled in recent months, which does not bode well for the Pakistani economy.

What is clear now is that Pakistan urgently requires some modicum of political stability for it to effectively grapple with a complex array of economic and security challenges. Ultimately this necessitates that the country’s political and military leaders closely cooperate to ensure free and fair democratic transitions later this year. This can be the basis of credible political mandates that allow for tough decisions to be taken on the economic, political and security fronts.

Absent that stability, there is every chance that Pakistan’s economic woes may lead to widespread social unrest, which will only increase the space for more terrorist violence.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

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