February 27, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Pakistan: the low road on terrorism

By |2023-12-13T00:55:43+01:00December 6th, 2023|Asia Unlimited|
Boys playing or a pack of a terrorists?

ince the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in 2021, terrorism has surged in neighboring Pakistan. However, this is not the same kind of terrorist activity which we have grown accustomed to from Pakistan. In the past, Pakistan has exported terrorism to other countries and regions; now there is a marked increase in domestic terror attacks. Tensions long simmering are exploding in open view.

And what is Pakistan doing about this? Are they increasing security efforts and tracking down terrorist hideouts? Perhaps they are throwing terrorist leaders in jail or going after their primary sources of funding? Alas, none of those things, while advisable, have been high on the government’s priority list lately. Instead, it is engaging in the tried-and-true strategy of blaming others and abusing refugees.

With the Taliban’s ascent in Kabul, their ideological brethren across the border, a group known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, has also been ascendant. Technically an offshoot of the Afghan Taliban and once supported by them, the TTP has lately been acting independently, rampaging through  northwest Pakistan, notably the territories of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Peshawar, both of which are long-time terrorist hotbeds.

The first six months of this year saw an 80 percent increase in militant attacks in Pakistan, the vast majority carried out by the TTP.

Among other things, the TTP has taken over governance in isolated villages, implemented sharia law, and carried out scores of deadly bombings. According to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, the first six months of this year saw an 80 percent increase in militant attacks in Pakistan, the vast majority carried out by the TTP.

The Pakistani leadership was shocked in particular by a September 6 attack on a military enclave in the border district of Chitral. According to news reports, hundreds of TTP militants seized two outposts and killed four Pakistani soldiers. The militants were eventually repelled by Pakistani forces, but the attack highlighted that the TTP remains active and can carry out significant terrorist operations.

The Chitral siege was just one in a series of bombings and attacks recently that have shaken the Pakistani state. These attacks include a blast in a police compound in Peshawar that killed 87 people and a flagrant attack on a Pakistani air force base that damaged several military aircraft. Incidences such as these are both startling and supremely embarrassing for Pakistani officials and military leaders.

But rather than take bold action, the government has instead taken a much easier course – blaming and demanding action from others, namely the Taliban rulers across the border. In recent months, Pakistani leaders have quite publicly accused the Kabul regime of failing to crack down on the TTP, and of harboring, supporting, and providing safe havens to the terrorist group. Said Asif Durrani, Pakistan’s special representative on Afghanistan, recently stated, “It’s not only that TTP is taking shelter in Afghanistan, but also that some Afghans are joining their ranks.”

Furthermore, the Pakistani government blames Afghan nationals for fourteen of the 24 major terrorist attacks in Pakistan this year. Islamabad has provided no evidence to support this claim, but even if it is true, this admits that a whopping ten terrorist attacks, almost one per month, are due to domestic extremists. The Taliban government of course denies all these claims vehemently, saying that the TTP is not supported by Kabul in any way and that no Afghans have joined their ranks.

Islamabad and Kabul will continue to squabble about this, but does anyone else see the irony here? That Pakistan would complain about someone else supporting cross-border terrorists? For those that may have forgotten, Pakistan did this for almost 20 years, nearly the entirety of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. While stating publicly and giving the United States its solemn word that it was rooting out terrorist encampments, the Pakistani government under a string of different leaders cut secret deals with exiled Taliban groups that allowed them to continue to operate on Pakistani soil, as long as they didn’t turn on the state.

And what did these groups do? Pop across the border of course to attack U.S. troops and then scurry back to Pakistan, where U.S. forces could not pursue them. This happened again and again. When the U.S. protested to the Pakistanis, Islamabad gave “assurances” that terrorists find no harbor in Pakistan, the same assurances that Kabul is now providing. Pakistan practically invented and definitely perfected the art of cross-border attacks. As a result, one could be forgiven for finding it difficult to generate sympathy for Pakistan’s current protests.

Nevertheless, the fact is that terrorism remains a scourge in Pakistan that kills scores of civilians and imperils the population. And something must be done about it. But fear not, for the Pakistani government has decided that the best thing to do is to force out the 1.7 million Afghan refugees currently living in Pakistan. This may seem like a joke, but this is in fact what Pakistan is doing. Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace, recently noted that the refugee deportation, which began in early November, is the most serious result so far of the government’s frustration with the ongoing terrorism.

What do terrorists have to do with refugees? Not much actually, as you might imagine. But according to the Pakistani government, Afghan terrorists are ostensibly blending in with these refugees and therefore, anyone from across the border who does not have proper documentation has to be kicked out. Pakistan’s interior minister claimed the decision to expel was due to national security concerns, again citing the high number of terrorist attacks by Afghan nationals.

 However, this is a futile strategy. Many of the refugees facing deportation have lived in Pakistan for decades, coming across as children long ago, and many others were born in Pakistan. Recall that Afghan refugees have been coming to Pakistan almost continually since the late 1970s, after the Soviet invasion. Even the most recent arrivals fled Afghanistan during the current reign of the Taliban. If anything, these folks are more virulently anti-Taliban than Pakistan is. Taliban militants would surely find no friends in this refugee crowd – they view the Taliban as the source of their dire situation.

Furthermore, even if a few militants have “blended in,” they can just as easily separate from the crowd heading for the border, and then blend in with the local Pakistani population. And why would blending in be so easy? Because even though they might be from different countries, they are all ethnically Pashtun. Before the two countries were separated by an international border, southeast Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan were part of the same ethnic and cultural region. In fact, most Taliban militants, both Afghan and Pakistani, are from this region. The only way to separate them is paperwork, which is not exactly a reliable method in the hinterlands of North Waziristan.

So what have Pakistan’s refugee actions accomplished so far? Mostly increased abuse and hardships. According to Human Rights Watch, a trusted international watchdog, Pakistan’s deportation orders have “led to detentions, beatings, and extortion, leaving thousands of Afghans in fear over their future.” The organization added that “deportation will expose [refugees] to significant security risks, including threats to their lives and well-being.” From almost any perspective, these refugees are not terrorists, but desperate people who have nothing and nowhere else to go. And now they are subject to widespread punishment because of the actions of a small number of militants.

The Pakistani government has decided that the best thing to do is to force out the 1.7 million Afghan refugees currently living in Pakistan.

This situation has gotten so bad that even the Taliban government in Kabul has taken the moral high ground on human rights over Islamabad’s treatment of refugees. The Taliban’s acting prime minister, Mohammad Hasan Akhund, recently said that Islamabad should “come and talk face to face with us” about any problems. “Don’t mistreat refugees for that.” For good measure, the Taliban defense minister, Mohammad Yaqoob, implored Pakistani officials not to treat refugees with “cruelty” and to respect their property and possessions. You know something is seriously wrong when the Taliban is lecturing you about cruelty to your own residents. After all, this is a regime that engages in public executions, enforces sharia law, and locks away its women and girls behind closed doors.

Irony aside, what should the Pakistani government do in the face of these continued attacks? For starters, it could try what most modern governments do – raid terrorist hideouts, clear out training camps and headquarters, harden security in sensitive areas, and find ways to dry up the gushing spigot of terrorist financing. Above all, Pakistan should use its sophisticated intelligence apparatus to work with partner nations (including the United States and, yes, the Taliban) to address this horrific situation.

What it should not do is point fingers, cast aspersions, and uproot innocent civilians who pose no threat to the state. That sort of behavior should be beneath the Pakistanis. But maybe that is asking too much.

About the Author:

Anish Goel, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at New America, a foreign policy think tank in Washington, D.C, and previously served in the White House as senior director for South Asia. He is currently an employee of the U.S. Department of Defense. The views expressed in his "Asia Unlimited" column, which appears occasionally, are strictly personal and in no way necessarily reflect those of his employer.