By Abdul Basit Khan
As 2021 drew to a close, terrorism persisted in Pakistan as both the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Baloch insurgents continued their attacks. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal, as many as 414 terrorism incidents were recorded in Pakistan in 2021 compared to 319 attacks last year, registering a 23 percent increase. The 2021’s terrorism trend-lines in Pakistan mostly conformed to regional geopolitical developments. Like 2020, firing and improvised explosive devices were the most frequently used operational tactics, mainly targeting the Pakistani security forces and personnel of other law enforcement agencies.
August was the most volatile month in Pakistan, with 46 recorded attacks. The Taliban took power in Afghanistan in the same month as well. Arguably, the Taliban’s return to power had a rejuvenating effect on the Pakistani militant groups, particularly TTP. Against this backdrop, the Pakistani militant groups have become more aggressive in their violent activism adopting uncompromising attitudes in pursuit of their ideological goals. The developments in Afghanistan will potentially redefine the Pakistani state’s relationship with different radical and religious groups to the detriment of free speech, peaceful coexistence and religious pluralism in the country.
Since August 2020, around 10 splinter factions have rejoined TTP or pledged allegiance to its incumbent chief Nur Wali Mehsud. These mergers and reunifications have added to TTP’s operational strength and extended its geographical outreach beyond the ex-FATA region, now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Under Nur Wali, TTP has refashioned its ideological rhetoric from Al-Qaeda aligned global war to a Pakistan-centric narrative, primarily focused on Pashtun grievances. In his July 2021 interview to CNN, Mehsud, in a sharp departure from TTP’s previously stated goal of transforming Pakistan into a self-styled theocracy through armed struggle, articulated the terror group’s goal in ethno-separatist terms of separating the ex-FATA region from Pakistan and converting it into a Sharia state. Furthermore, closer scrutiny of statements issued by Nur Wali and TTP’s spokesperson Muhammad Khurasani in 2021 also reveals an overemphasis on Pashtun grievances and narratives of political alienation. This is something that TTP seems to have adopted from the Afghan Taliban, i.e., keeping the goals local and distant from global militant narratives of Al-Qaeda or Daesh.
In November, the Pakistani government and TTP entered a one-month cease-fire from November 9 to December 9 in anticipation of reaching a broader peace deal. The Pakistani government believed following the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and their dependence on Pakistan for availing international humanitarian assistance, Pakistan had a strong chance of reaching a deal with TTP on its terms. However, given the diametrically opposed positions of both sides, the peace talks collapsed and TTP ended the one-month long cease-fire on December 10. Pakistan was ready to pardon TTP militants and allow them to live like normal citizens provided they publicly apologized for terrorist attacks, accepted the state’s writ and gave a pledge to live according to Pakistani law. On the contrary, TTP wanted the release of 100 prisoners as a pre-condition alongside opening a political office in a third country to pursue talks with the Pakistani state.
Similarly, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) was back on the streets in October, as it announced yet another long march toward Islamabad demanding the release of its leader Saad Rizvi and the expulsion of the French ambassador in line with the agreement the PTI government signed with it in November 2020 following French President Emanuel Macron’s support for French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s decision to republish the blasphemous caricatures. The deal was renewed and extended in February 2021.
Despite the PTI government’s bravado of not allowing TLP to challenge the state’s writ, a secret deal was reached with TLP resulting in the release of Saad Rizvi, removal of terrorism ban from the radical group and permission to contest the next general elections. In return, TLP dropped the demand of the French ambassador’s expulsion and gave a pledge to desist from street agitation. At any rate, the deal with TLP further entrenched its radical narrative and enhanced its strength.
In 2021, the Baloch insurgent groups faced multiple hardships in Afghanistan as they struggled to maintain their sanctuaries in southern parts of the country, following the Taliban’s victory. Most Baloch insurgents relocated to Iran’s Seistan-Balochistan province or Baloch areas in Pakistan. At any rate, the Baloch insurgents’ attacks continued unabated throughout the year. In recent years, non-tribal Baloch segments have spearheaded the separatist insurgency rooted in Gwadar, Mekran and Lasbela districts. The current wave of Baloch insurgency since it started in 2004 has been the longest as compared to the previous four waves of insurgencies in Balochistan.
In October, the Financial Action Task Force retained Pakistan on its “grey-list” despite significant progress on a 27-point action plan. In June, FATF gave Pakistan another 7-point action plan to address deficiencies related to money laundering. So far, Pakistan has addressed four of the seven items of the second action plan, including checks on businesses and enacting legislative amendments to ensure international cooperation. Taken together, according to FATF, Pakistan is compliant on 30 of 34 points of the two action plans.
The PTI government’s decision to engage TTP in negotiations ended the hard-won national consensus forged after the 2014 Army Public School Peshawar massacre to fight extremist and terrorist groups unequivocally. Though the PTI government has recently announced its plans to unveil the National Security Policy of Pakistan, a fresh and recalibrated counter extremism and terrorism approach is needed, which pays equal attention to both kinetic and non-kinetic aspects of these internal security challenges. Given the enduring nature of terrorism in Pakistan, the concomitant policy responses should aim to render terrorism irrelevant by reducing the appeal of radical and extremist ideologies. Only targeting terrorist groups through hard measures and banning these groups through legislative responses is necessary but not sufficient.
Invariably, Pakistan’s extremism and terrorism woes are directly linked to its compound identity crisis, i.e., whether the country was created as a theocracy or a moderate Muslim state. As long as this identity debate is not settled, various radical and militant movements such as TTP, Tehreek-e-Nifaze Shariat Muhammadi, or the Red Mosque movement will recurringly appear on Pakistan’s religio-political landscape to (re)define the country’s national identity in line with their ideological worldviews.
(The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter @basitresearcher.)