Can Pakistan face down a growing Taliban insurgency?
Haroon Janjua in Islamabad
January 31, 2023
The suicide bombing at a mosque in Peshawar signals a growing Taliban-fueled militancy in Pakistan. The Taliban's cross-border network poses a challenge to the government's attempts to counter the threat.
After the Taliban toppled Afghanistan's government in August 2021, authorities in neighboring Pakistan warned that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Taliban's Pakistani allies, would be emboldened in their yearslong rebellion against the government.
Throughout 2022, militants stepped up attacks throughout Pakistan, with tensions escalating in November after the TTP called off a fragile cease-fire with the Pakistani government and ordered their fighters to carry out attacks "wherever you can in the entire country."
According to the Pakistan Security Report 2022, released in early January by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, terrorist attacks in Pakistan have increased year-on-year by 27%. Out of the 262 attacks last year, the report said 86 were carried out by the TTP.
Most of the people in the mosque were police officers who were gathered for evening prayers, with the mosque located in their security compound. It is one of the deadliest attacks to strike Pakistan in years, and the deadliest since the Taliban takeover of Kabul.
Dozens killed in Pakistan mosque bombing
The TTP initially claimed responsibility for the bombing, with one of the group's commanders, Sarbakaf Mohmand, saying it was "revenge" for the death of a TTP militant last year.
A TTP spokesperson later denied the group was responsible, claiming that "any action in mosques" violates its "laws."
However, even if the core of the TTP is trying to distance itself from the attack, a TTP splinter group called Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has claimed responsibility, saying the attack was in retaliation for the death last year of its leader, Omar Khalid Khurasani.
Jamaat-ul-Ahrar is a large and powerful faction of the TTP that has been involved in orchestrating multiple attacks against Pakistani forces and religious minorities. It was behind an attack on Easter 2016 that killed around 75 people at a park in Lahore.
Who are the TTP?
One of the TTP's primary demands has been for Pakistan's government and military to reduce their presence in the country's northwest.
The TTP comprises several hard-line Sunni insurgent and sectarian groups who have waged a murderous campaign against the Pakistani state since 2007. Although the TPP are not directly linked with the Afghan Taliban in Kabul, they pledge allegiance to the group.
Pakistan banned the TTP in 2008, and the group has been responsible for many attacks across Pakistan. The deadliest to date was a 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar that killed at least 150 people, mostly schoolchildren.
The TPP have been declared a terrorist organization by the United Nations and the United States. Their attacks have killed thousands of civilians and security forces in Pakistan.
'TTP threat to Pakistan is significant, and it is growing'
Even during the ostensible cease-fire that ended in November, the TTP continued to carry out attacks.
"A full-fledged operation is required to curb militancy in Pakistan rather than adopting a soft policy," Afrasiab Khattak, a former senator from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told DW, adding that the government should not negotiate with "terrorists."
Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari recently condemned the previous government's policy of appeasing extremist groups, particularly the TTP.
Bhutto-Zardari told Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera that former Prime Minister Imran Khan did not crack down hard enough on the TTP in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which is one of his political strongholds. He added that the TTP is now responding to the new government's reversal of Khan's appeasement policies.
"The TTP threat to Pakistan is significant, and it is growing," said Madiha Afzal, a scholar at the Brookings Institution focusing on Pakistan.
"The TTP have been emboldened by a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the Pakistani state's shaky, uncertain approach to the group in recent years. Pakistan has tried negotiating with the group many times over the years; negotiations always fail because the group is existentially opposed to the Pakistani state and constitution," she told DW.
"The only option the state has is to launch an extensive military operation against the group, as it did in 2014, but that is complicated this time around by the fact that the TTP can cross the border into Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, leaving Pakistan with a growing, and hard-to-control terrorism problem on its hands."
"This attack comes at a time when the economy is on the brink. That itself requires the government to take this seriously and ensure that the threat to the country's security is effectively met," said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States.
"Pakistan is witnessing a rise in militant attacks. These seem to have spiked since the Taliban returned to power in neighboring Afghanistan. The security challenge, especially after the Peshawar attack, necessitates that law enforcement agencies step up their actions to counter the militants," she said.
Will Pakistan regret its tacit support for the Taliban?
Afghanistan represents a persistent security dilemma
Most of the TPP's leadership operates from within Afghanistan, which shares a porous 2,600 kilometer-long (1,600-mile) border with Pakistan. After the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, TTP leadership and fighters have been given safe harbor in the country by their Taliban allies.
Hours after Monday's bombing, Pakistani Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan said the Afghan Taliban must fulfill their commitments to the international community and not allow any militant group to use Afghan soil for orchestrating attacks against another country.
Since 2009, Pakistan's security forces have launched several military offensives in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Past military operations have succeeded in pushing TTP militants out of Pakistan.