By Hamid Mir: In 2015, Pakistan’s army declared victory in its fight against terrorism. Eight years later, Pakistan is once again under attack. There were more than 150 attacks against the Pakistan Army and police by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) in 2022. The first month of 2023 saw 44 attacks by TTP in which 134 people were killed. Taliban used US-made sophisticated weapons in many attacks against Pakistani security forces. These weapons were left behind by the US and NATO forces during their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021.
Many weapons were sold to arms dealers by the soldiers and officers of the Afghan National Army, which collapsed after the fall of Kabul. The US gave a total of $18.6 billion of equipment to the Afghan Defense Forces between 2005 and 2021. Approximately, $7 billion of military equipment the US transferred to Afghan Defense Forces over 16 years was left behind in Afghanistan after the US completed its withdrawal from the country in August 2021. This equipment went into the hands of Afghan Taliban and TTP.
The Pakistan Army has launched a new operation in areas bordering Afghanistan after recent suicide bombing in a Peshawar mosque which killed more than 100 people. Most of the victims were police personnel who were offering their afternoon prayers. The mosque was located inside a highly protected police compound.
This savage act has shaken the whole country. But perhaps more profoundly, it has highlighted the flaws in the policies pursued by the country’s leaders until now. One can only hope that the tragedy of Peshawar can trigger a discussion about how to correct the country’s course.
The Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) initially claimed responsibility for the attack, and then distanced itself. One of its splinter groups, Jammat ul Ahrar, later accepted responsibility, saying it was done to avenge the killing of its leader Omar Khalid Khurasani last year. Earlier this year, Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif said that he had no doubt that terror attacks inside Pakistan were being prepared from within Afghanistan, a violation of the 2020 Doha agreement between the Taliban and the US.
A few days before this tragedy, former Prime Minister Imran Khan warned that tensions with the Afghan Taliban could fuel terror in Pakistan. But his Cassandra-like predictions should not be taken at face value. Pakistani militant groups have been very soft on Khan and very hard on his political opponents, who are in power these days. When he was in power, Khan always supported talks with the TTP and planned to resettle more than 5,000 militants in Pakistan’s loosely governed Federally Administered Tribal Areas. His administration also released a large number of militants from prison. The released militants have started fighting Pakistani forces with US weapons.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif presided over a meeting of his Cabinet a few days ago in which he warned of terrorism spreading to other areas of Pakistan if appropriate steps were not taken. But he politicized a national tragedy. During his address, shown live on all Pakistani TV channels, he repeatedly asked, “Who brought these terrorists back?” While the prime minister is right to say that Khan adopted a flawed and confused policy against militant organizations, it’s also true that Sharif continued talks with the TTP when he came to power in April last year. A delegation led by General Faiz Hameed visited Kabul for talks a month later. Faiz met some TTP leaders in Kabul who were wanted in Pakistan.
Sharif must be forthright with the public. He must tell his nation who authorized General Faiz Hameed to negotiate with a militant group that is explicitly committed to undermining Pakistan’s constitutional order. He needs to come clean on why the army was ordered to release TPP leaders convicted by Pakistan’s courts. He should explain why his government, just like Imran Khan’s, would not take parliament into confidence about the ongoing talks. Pakistanis want to know why a 600,000-strong army equipped with nuclear weapons has failed to secure its borders from a few thousand militants.
The answer is not hard to figure out. Pakistan has long been a paradigmatic example of a hybrid regime, one in which parliament rubber-stamps all the important decisions taken by the military leadership. Imran Khan and Shehbaz Sharif were accepting dictation from former Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who was the mastermind of talks with TTP. It is time to change the policies which only produced failures. Now, parliament should make all important decisions. If the military is going after TTP, parliament should make the final decision after an extended public debate.
That debate needs to produce clearer thinking. The key to the problem is our policy towards the Afghan Taliban. There is no denying that the resurgence of the TTP is directly linked to the fall of Kabul to the Afghan Taliban in 2021. Since then, the new Taliban government in Kabul has been allowing the TTP to conduct operations against Pakistan from Afghan soil (even though Kabul did condemn the Peshawar attack). Pakistan’s military leadership has long supported the Afghan Taliban and also cooperated with the US against Taliban. It was a confusing policy. This confusion created misunderstandings between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan. We now clearly see the result of these confused policies.
Pakistan was a frontline State in the US war against terrorism after 9/11 but now Pakistan is a victim of the weapons left by the US in Afghanistan. TTP first released many videos of their training with the US weapons and then they started using M4s, M16s and M24 sniper rifles with thermal scope against Pakistani forces. They killed Pakistani soldiers and police officials from a long distance. A senior police official from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police told me that US weapons are available in black market. Some US weapons are coming from Ukraine and some coming from Afghanistan, but police cannot buy these weapons from black market.
According to some reports, US weapons are now available to Kashmiri militants fighting against Indian security forces. It is interesting to note that the Indian Army never blamed Pakistan when US weapons were recovered from Kashmiri militants recently. Pakistan Army never blamed India after the recent bombing in Peshawar. Pakistan always blamed India for supporting TTP when Ashraf Ghani was ruling Kabul but now Afghan Taliban is controlling Kabul. The Pakistani establishment realized that blaming India may only benefit the real enemy which is TTP. In fact, the Afghan Taliban released a big number of TTP militants who were arrested by the Ghani administration. Now, the Afghan Taliban is quietly cooperating with Pakistan against the Jammatul Ahrar faction of TTP. The operational commander of JuA, Shamsher Khan, was mysteriously killed in an IED blast in the Afghan province of Kunar on Tuesday. Shamsher Khan was not an Indian or Afghan national. He was a Pakistani from Mohmand area. It is learnt that Shamsher was the mastermind of Peshawar bombing and he was targeted by Pakistani agents with the help of Afghan Taliban.
The losses and sufferings caused by the US weapons forced the Pakistan Army to think about the use of drones against TTP. Pakistan may also be tempted to use airstrikes against TTP hideouts in Afghanistan. Last year, airstrikes caused the death of many civilians. Airstrikes must be the last option. Innocent civilians should not become victims yet again. Surgical operations guided by solid intelligence work are far preferable because these operations have proved more successful recently. And pressure must be exerted on the Afghan Taliban to restrict the movement of TTP fighters in border areas.
The Peshawar tragedy presents an opportunity for a broader shift in how we approach politics in Pakistan. Imran Khan was ready to talk to the TTP but he was not ready to engage his political opponents. He thought that early elections in Pakistan are the solution to all economic and political problems. He dissolved provincial assemblies of Punjab and KPK provinces for pushing the federal government to an early general election but KPK police clearly said that they are short of 57,000 jawans and cannot provide security for the elections. Imran Khan is fighting for early elections and Shehbaz Sharif is trying his best to delay the polls but their focus should be on a joint strategy against economic and security problems of the country.
Shehbaz Sharif should also lead by example. Blaming the previous government for the Peshawar bombing just keeps us locked in the same circle. His Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah has been dreaming of throwing Imran Khan behind bars. This political victimization is not the solution to the economic and security problems faced by Pakistan these days. Political leadership of Pakistan needs unity to defeat the new wave of suicide bombings in Pakistan.
At the same time, the intelligence agencies need to be brought to heel. They should devote their energies to identifying and hunting down terrorists, not silencing political opponents and independent journalists.
Finally, Pakistan must build a regional consensus to ensure that the Afghan Taliban does not provide shelter to violent groups who are a direct threat not only to Pakistan but also to China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran and India.
Pakistan can turn the Peshawar tragedy into an opportunity to defeat the TTP – and fix itself.