The separatist Balochistan Liberation Army and the Islamic Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan team up targeting Pakistan’s Security Forces.
Even as it faces a serious economic downturn, terrorism is dealing Pakistan hard blows. In the North Western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Islamic zealots of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are mounting attacks on the security forces. In the South West, the secular but separatist Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) is on the prowl again.
The latest development is that the TTP, which demands that Pakistan be ruled by Sharia laws, and the ethnicity-based BLA, have joined hands against the Pakistani State.
According to the Inter-Services Public Relations, top army commanders under chief Gen.Syed Asim Munir met on December 27 and 28 and “resolved to fight against terrorists without any distinction and eliminate this menace as per aspirations of the people of Pakistan.” The army’s reaffirmation comes in the wake of a recent uptick in terrorist attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and in Balochistan.
Having lost half of the country through the secession of Bangladesh in 1971, Pakistan can ill-afford to ignore another armed separatist insurgency. Equally, it cannot afford to let a Taliban-like violent movement to impose Sharia on it and turn it into another Afghanistan.
On the economic front, Pakistan’s outlook dire. It is unable to pay its debts. In 2023 it has to pay back a foreign debt of US$ 26 billion, according to Bloomberg. Right now, Pakistan has forex only for five weeks’ imports. Inflation has skyrocketed. And, on top of it all, Pakistan is still to rehabilitate 30 million people rendered homeless by the recent floods.
The roots of the insurgency in Balochistan lie in decades-long economic grievances. Balochistan is resource-rich (including gold), but remains very backward. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through it to culminate in the Chinese-built port of Gwadar. But the local Balochis have gained little from these multi-billion dollar projects. Protests have only led to violent repression, disappearances and more alienation.
Two incidents occurred on December 24, in which at least five security men were killed in Turbat and Chaman. The TTP took responsibility for the Chaman attack. On Sunday December 25, which was Pakistan’s founder M.A.Jinnah’s birthday and Christmas, at least six security men were killed. The bloodiest incident occurred in Kohlu’s Kahan area, when five army men, including a captain, lost their lives in an IED blast. The BLA claimed responsibility.
Pakistan has been fighting insurgents in Balochistan since 2004. The BLA is against China’s investments which they feel have been of no use to them. In May 12, 2019 five people, including a soldier, were killed after BLA gunmen stormed the only five-star hotel in Gwadar, the port city which Pakistan is hoping to develop into a major commercial hub. In November 2018, the BLA had attacked the Chinese Consulate in Karachi in which four persons (not Chinese) were killed. In April 2022, a BLA female suicide cadre blasted a van carrying Chinese language teachers in Karachi in which three Chinese were killed. In July 2019, the US State Department proscribed the BLA.
The BLA is essentially a secular movement, demanding independence from Pakistan. But the government’s non-political and muscular approach has only exacerbated the situation. As the daily Dawn put it: “Years of policies led by the Establishment to pacify Balochistan have failed. Therefore, along with kinetic action, the state must also look at why it has been unable to bring socioeconomic uplift to this resource-rich, but appallingly poor province.”
Though basically secular, the BLA has an Islamic touch too. A report in Dawn recalled that religiously inspired militancy has had a presence in Balochistan for long. One of the most lethal sectarian terror groups, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, (LJ ) operated out of Balochistan at one time. The Jhangavi’s actions had claimed hundreds of lives. It is suspected that the cadres of the Jhangvi are now collaborating with the Tehreek-i-Pakistan (TTP).
The TTP, on the other hand, are pan-Pakistan Islamic zealots, who want Pakistan’s constitution to be based on the Sharia. But Pakistan does not want to be another Afghanistan.
In November, the TTP had withdrawn from its June 2022 ceasefire agreement with the Pakistani government. On November 18, the TTP stormed the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) office at Bannu in the Khyber Pakhtunkwa Province, held the police interrogators of its cadres hostage, and demanded safe evacuation to Afghanistan. This set off alarm bells in Washington too, where the State Department Spokesman, Ned Price, said that the US will “unconditionally” support Pakistan in its fight against terrorism.
Unlike other terrorist groups operating in Pakistan, the TTP has no links with the Pakistani State. Other terror groups are used by State agencies to carry out its designs against India, but the government has no leverage over the TTP.
Pakistan had witnessed a 51% rise in terrorist attacks in one year since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, Dawn reported, quoting the Islamabad-based think tank, Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies. The spike in terror incidents saw the killing of almost 500 people between August 15, 2021 and August 14, 2022, the report said.
The nature of the TTP is delineated by Georgetown University’s Abdul Sayed and Clemson University’s Amira Jadoon in their August 16, 2022 paper: Understanding Tehrik-e- Taliban Pakistan’s Unrelenting Posture.
Afghan Taliban’s Role
In June 2022, the Pakistan government and the TTP entered into a ceasefire agreement. But the Afghan Taliban remained neutral on the agreement. This was for two reasons: (1) it had its own problems with Islamabad over the disputed border, the Durand Line; (2) it was preoccupied with the fight against the Islamic State of Khorasan (IS-K) within Afghanistan.
At any rate, the Afghan Taliban, being now in power, did not want to be under the tutelage of Pakistan though Pakistan had helped it come to power by sheltering its cadres for years and interceding on its behalf with the US. Opinion on Pakistan among the Afghan Jihadis was also tainted by Islamabad’s support for the US War on Terror, which resulted in massive killings.
The Afghan Taliban’s standoffishness and reservations about Pakistan encouraged the TTP to take a tough line vis-à-vis Pakistan and eventually break the ceasefire in November.
Sayed and Jadoon point to yet another reason for discord between the TTP and Pakistan: the TTP’s unwillingness to compromise on its demand of reversing the 2018 merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies (FATA) into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province in Pakistan. The TTP considers a separate FATA as essential for asserting the Pakhtuns’ separate identity. The TTP is the militant voice of the Pakhtuns in Pakistan. But Pakistan’s fear is that if FATA were restored it will eventually be claimed by Afghanistan, because the Afghan Taliban are dominated by Pakhtuns.
Exploiting Popular Alienation
Since Pakistan’s economy is on a downward spiral, there is widespread alienation from the government, the political parties and even the military. Continued military action against militant groups in the tribal areas has affected innocents. This is exploited by the TTP. The TTP is also exploiting the grievances of ethnic groups, such as the Baloch, though the Baloch liberation movement is mostly secular.
Above all, the TTP is strongly advocating Islamization and the imposition of Sharia in full, which other political groups, including the avowedly Islamic ones, are not pressing for fully and with single-minded devotion. According to Sayed and Jadoon, there is an influential urban intellectual constituency favoring drastic Islamization as the only way to rescue Pakistan from the current political, social and economic morass. This appears to be the most worrying part.