Growing Instability in Pakistan Amidst Rising Terror Attacks

The security landscape of Pakistan has been deeply influenced by a complex interplay of domestic and external factors, with terrorism emerging as a serious concern due to support from neighbouring countries and compounded by internal dynamics. Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, Pakistan has faced a significant rise in terrorist activities and casualties. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Balochistan were the primary centres of violence, responsible for over 90% of all fatalities and 84% of attacks, with several attacks also reported in Punjab and Karachi. In 2023, Pakistan witnessed 1,524 violence-related deaths and 1,463 injuries from 789 attacks and counter-terrorism operations. This year, the situation has been particularly alarming, with 245 terror attacks targeting security forces, police check posts, and public places in the first quarter of 2024. This surge highlights the complex and precarious security dynamics in Pakistan.

Operation Zarb-e-Azb, launched on 15 June 2014, aimed to dismantle terrorist networks of various local and foreign banned organisations. While many terrorists were eliminated in Pakistan, thousands of them were relocated to Afghanistan. According to United Nations (UN) reports, in 2020, there were over 6000 terrorists affiliated with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Afghanistan. Following its relocation, the TTP undertook the process of reorganisation and reconstitution, thereby maintaining its ideological framework. The aftermath of the Operation reveals the limitations of a purely military approach to counterterrorism. Despite successful tactical operations, the failure to address underlying grievances and provide adequate governance and socioeconomic development allowed extremist ideologies to endure and proliferate.

The surge in terrorist activities underscores the evolving nature of Pakistan’s security challenges, characterised by the emergence of new groups, realignment among existing militant factions, and shifts in tactics and media campaigns that heighten complexity.

Since August 2021, the resurgence of TTP in Pakistan has become evident with the increasing number of attacks within the country and posing a significant security threat. The TTP has a history of targeting civilians, security forces and government officials. Peshawar has become a conflict zone, with a notable increase in kidnapping and ransom demands. The area formerly known as Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) has become inaccessible, while Swat has experienced alarming developments and has once again plunged into violence and fear. Facilitated by the Afghan Taliban, the TTP has evolved significantly, emerging as a more structured entity. Its organisational divisions within Pakistan now mirror the hierarchical arrangement observed within the Afghan Taliban.

Reports indicate that militant groups emboldened by Taliban control have intensified their operations, exploiting porous border with Pakistan. Various cells within the Afghan Taliban’s General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI), including 041, 051 and 063, have been linked to the delivery of weapons and funds to Pakistani militant groups. Additionally, these cells have also protected Al Qaeda 313 Brigade and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The TTP, distancing itself from Al Qaeda, employs modern propaganda and recruitment strategies to gain local support and avoid United States (US) drone strikes. Pakistan’s civil-military divide and political instability fuel the TTP’s resurgence attributed partly to safe havens in Afghanistan under the Afghan Taliban administration. The UN report underscores the transnational threat posed by active TTP fighters in Afghanistan. Despite diplomatic efforts and the Doha agreement’s provisions, concerns persist as the Taliban’s reluctance to control TTP, indicating ongoing challenges. The Afghan Taliban’s historical ties to Al Qaeda and alliances with groups such as TTP and ETIM pose significant security concerns, notably for Chinese interests in Pakistan.

In March 2024, Pakistan experienced a series of coordinated attacks targeting Chinese interests, resulting in the death of 18 people, including security personnel, five Chinese nationals and one Pakistani citizen. These incidents demonstrate a high level of coordination and boldness among the militants, reflecting a strategy aimed at undermining Pakistan’s interests and its relations with China. The attacks targeted strategic assets in Pakistan, including the Chinese-supported Gwadar port in Balochistan, the Pakistan Naval Base, PNS Siddique in Turbat, and the Chinese workers involved in a hydropower project in the north.

On 26 March 2024, an attack in Besham, Shangla, resulted in the death of five Chinese nationals and their Pakistani driver. While this incident remains unclaimed, suspicions have been raised regarding TTP due to its known influence in the region, recent military action taken against it by Pakistani forces, and its affiliation with anti-China factors. Initial investigations conducted by Pakistani authorities suggested the involvement of the Afghanistan-based TTP in the attack. Also, it is argued that the financial burden on the Afghan government has indirectly facilitated the flow of resources to terrorist organisations, including the TTP. Evidence suggests that TTP has received funds from India through Afghan intermediaries, a claim supported by Pakistan’s UN Ambassador Munir Akram. Akram states India is financing and backing terrorist groups, particularly TTP and the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), to destabilise Pakistan and disrupt the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The attack in Shangla prompted the Power Construction Corporation of China (PCCC) to temporarily suspend civil works at the Tarbela 5th Extension Hydropower Project in Swabi, KPK province. Security analysts state that these attacks are part of a broader plan to disrupt Pakistan-China relations, with Beijing advocating for large-scale anti-terrorism operations similar to Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

The surge in terrorist activities underscores the evolving nature of Pakistan’s security challenges, characterised by the emergence of new groups, realignment among existing militant factions, and shifts in tactics and media campaigns that heighten complexity. This indicates strategic readjustment among the militant groups, leading to increased coordination and sophistication, particularly in bordering provinces. However, the Provincial Counterterrorism Departments (CTDs) struggle with coordination, funding and intelligence gathering, making it difficult to understand these militant groups’ dynamics, connections, and operational strategies.

The rise in terrorist attacks highlights the need for Pakistan to reassess its counter-terrorism strategies. Pakistan government officials stress tighter border control and collective counterterrorism, blaming Afghanistan for recent incidents while advocating zero tolerance and dialogue for militants. The recent military operations against cross-border militant affiliations have resulted in the elimination of nearly 30 terrorists. Yet, Afghanistan continues to be the breeding group for terrorism, allowing TTP to operate with little restriction from the Afghan Taliban. The presence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan and close ties between Taliban and Al Qaeda worsens the situation.

Past operations like Zarb-e-Azb primarily focused on kinetic measures, which led to a decline in terrorism but failed to address the root causes of terrorism. The lack of non-kinetic interventions—such as socio-economic development, political stability and ideological counter-measures—has allowed terrorist networks to regenerate. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, leading Pakistan’s Apex Committee of National Action Plan (NAP), approved the initiation of Operation Azm-e-Istehkam to eradicate terrorism and extremism throughout the country amid increasing terrorist attacks and growing demands from the Chinese government for another operation. However, opposition lawmakers made it clear that they would not support any military operation, demanding that military leadership first take the parliament into confidence. The government and opposition remained divided on the new military operation.

The success of these measures relies on the coordination between provincial and federal governments. However, internal political dynamics—marked by a lack of consensus among political parties and friction between the provincial government of KPK and the federal government—have exacerbated the vulnerabilities. Without unified support, counter-terrorism efforts remain fragmented and ineffective, leaving the country exposed to continued attacks. This friction also undermines cooperation and resource allocation, risking security and financial stability. To enhance national security, Pakistan needs to bolster border defences, improve intelligence capabilities and optimise resource allocation through cohesive governmental cooperation. Furthermore, diplomatic engagements with regional partners such as China and Iran, as seen in the trilateral counter-terrorism meeting in Beijing, are crucial for reinforcing international support. Concurrently, it is crucial to maintain pressure on the Afghan Taliban to restrict their ties with terrorist entities like the TTP. A comprehensive approach encompassing both kinetic and non-kinetic measures is essential to effectively combat terrorism and safeguard Pakistan’s stability and security in the long term.

Bashira Omeed

Bashira Omeed serves as an Assistant Editor and Researcher at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. She has an MPhil in International Relations from NDU, Islamabad. Her research focuses on diplomatic relations, defence and security, and international affairs.

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