Militant groups at Afghan borders expose vulnerability of Pakistani Army
Situation at the Pak-Afghan border is gradually getting out of Pakistan’s hand post Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. Against Pakistan’s hope of enjoying the fruits of its years-long cultivation of terrorist organisations, such groups in Afghanistan are proving to be security nightmare for it. The last few months have witnessed a noticeable up-tick in sporadic incidents at different border points between the two countries. The high frequency of such attacks has left Pakistani Military red faced during the recent months.
During May 4-5 this year, nine Pak security personnel were killed in ambushes and bomb attacks in Zhob area of Balochistan and North Waziristan and Bajaur tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It was followed by another attack on July 13 in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Kurram district in which two Pak army personnel were killed. A similar attack in September 2021 again tested the nerves of Pak Army in South Waziristan. According to Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Pakistan, the September attack claimed the lives of seven soldiers of the Pakistan Army. It was said to be in response to Pakistan Army conducting an intelligence-based operation in the Data Khel area of the district.
The latest cross-border attack by the militants has now forced the Pakistan government to plead for Afghanistan’s support in tackling the menace. On December 15, 2021, Pak army faced an attack on its troops in Bajaur district, which led to 5 casualties and 6 injuries among Pak soldiers. Pak Foreign office was forced to intervene with the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad. Referring to frequent attacks on Pak military setup from Afghan soil, the Pak Ministry urged Afghanistan to launch an investigation into the issue and share the findings with Pakistan. It has also requested Afghan authorities to take immediate measure to ensure peace and stability in the border areas. A follow up on the issue was also done by Pak Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi during his meeting (December 18) with Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi on the sidelines of Extraordinary Session of Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Council of Foreign Ministers on Afghanistan. However, going by the increasing activity of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and similar groups in the border areas, the latest effort appears to be no more than wishful thinking.
Among different militant groups active on Pak-Afghan border, TTP is the largest. The group claims that its armed struggle aims to establish an Islamic political system in Pakistan based on the its interpretation of Sharia. During the last one year, it has been the leading force behind most of the attacks on Pakistani security forces deployed in the border areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
Utilising the active support provided by US forces, Pakistani military was able to contain TTP’s growth to a large extent during 2014 to 2018. However, the militant group received a lifeline in 2020 in the form of US’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. It received further boost when ten “Anti-Pak militant groups merged with it in July 2020. Since the end (December 9) of ceasefire between Pakistan and TTP, there has been a resurgence of attacks by the latter. The attacks have taken place despite assurances by Taliban that it would not allow use of its soil by terrorists against any country. Incidentally, the cease fire had also been brokered by Taliban.
TTP has emerged from years of al-Qaeda’s jihadi politics in Afghanistan and Pakistan after 9/11. It garnered al-Qaeda’s support by providing it shelter in Pakistan and is still considered to have links with the global terrorist organisation. Although the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) was formed by discontented TTP cadres, the former always avoided any major clash with TTP. This points towards the longevity of TTP as an organisation. TTP’s sustainable nature is reinforced by its flexibility to welcome changes in its form and functioning. At inception, the TTP claimed to be an extension of the Afghan Taliban. It declared Mullah Mohammed Omar, to be its spiritual leader and offered to support the Afghan Taliban’s war against the United States and its allies.
However the group claimed in 2020 that it no longer had any regional or global agenda beyond Pakistan. Some see this declaration as an attempt to reduce global support for Pakistan’s battle against the TTP. Taliban’s takeover of Kabul has anyway shifted much of the international spotlight way from the group and its allies battling Pakistani establishment. Hence in the given scenario, the frantic Pakistani call to Afghan authorities is likely to remain an unanswered prayer.