What is behind a resurgence of violent attacks in Pakistan?
Analysts say the government must assert its dominance and immediately devise a strategy to counter escalating attacks.
Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan is facing a resurgence of violent attacks, with analysts saying the government must immediately devise a strategy to counter the threat to internal security as the country heads into an election year.
Sunday saw at least nine attacks in the restive southwestern province of Balochistan, killing at least six security personnel. Two of those attacks have so far been claimed by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an armed group also known as Pakistani Taliban for its ideological affinity with the Afghan Taliban.
The TTP only last month unilaterally declared an end to a ceasefire agreed upon with the government and issued orders to its fighters to carry out attacks across the country.
On Friday, the TTP claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in the federal capital of Islamabad, in which at least one police officer died and several other people were wounded.
A week earlier, Pakistani security forces fought off the TTP attackers in Bannu city in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after they held security personnel hostage for more than 40 hours.
Amid such security concerns, the United States embassy in Islamabad on Sunday issued an alert to its staff, warning of a possible attack on one of Islamabad’s top hotels frequented by the Americans.
In a statement, the embassy said “unknown individuals are possibly plotting to attack Americans at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad sometime during the [Christmas] holidays”.
150 TTP attacks this year
Islamabad-based research organisation Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) estimates the TTP and its affiliate groups carried out more than 150 attacks in the first 11 months of this year, resulting in more than 150 deaths, a majority of them belonging to law enforcement agencies.
PIPS director Amir Rana told Al Jazeera the rising trend of attacks portrays a grim situation for Pakistan, which is scheduled to hold general elections next year.
“If the state’s security apparatus does not devise an effective counterterrorism policy, things are going to get out of hand. It could be reminiscent of the 2013 election campaign which was quite bloody, and we may see a repeat,” he said.
Since its formation in 2007, the TTP has been waging a rebellion against the state of Pakistan, demanding stricter imposition of Islamic laws, the release of its members arrested by the government, and a reversal of the merger of Pakistan’s tribal areas with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The rise of the Afghan Taliban, who took over Kabul last year, emboldened the group, leading to a spike in its attacks. Most of the group’s leadership has taken refuge in Afghanistan, officials say.
Late last year, peace talks began between Islamabad and the TTP, facilitated by the Afghan Taliban. Despite the talks and a ceasefire agreed upon in June, attacks by the group continued.
Abdul Basit, a research fellow at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, thinks the Pakistani security forces became complacent in their fight against the TTP once the peace talks started.
“It appears that the military thought that peace talks with the TTP will deliver dividends, so they were reactive instead of proactively seeking to dismantle various TTP networks,” he told Al Jazeera.
The TTP took advantage of this lull and managed to regroup in a more devastating manner, Basit said.
“The Pakistani military was caught napping once the attacks were launched, and I don’t think there was any effort to dismantle the TTP network,” he said.
Brigadier Muhammad Zeeshan, a former military officer, is now the director general of Centre for Peace, Security and Developmental Studies, a think-tank based in Islamabad. He thinks TTP fighters taking refuge in Afghanistan came back after the Taliban takeover there.
“Once the Afghan Taliban took over, the TTP cadres were forced to move back to Pakistan. It does not necessarily mean that the Pakistani state failed to dismantle their network here,” he told Al Jazeera.
Attacks amid economic crisis
Pakistan’s internal security challenges come when it is already facing political instability after the main opposition leader and former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who lost a parliamentary vote of confidence in April, has been holding public rallies, demanding early elections.
Pakistan is already reeling from a crippling economic situation, with foreign exchange reserves depleted to $6.7bn – a four-year low – and record-breaking inflation.
It is also dealing with the aftermath of catastrophic floods this summer that killed more than 1,700 people and caused damages estimated at over $30bn as the waters destroyed crops, roads, bridges and homes.
Basit said for Pakistan to effectively counter the threat of TTP and other armed groups, it needs to shift its fighting mode from “defensive to offensive counterterrorism”.
“All stakeholders, including civilian law enforcement agencies, military establishment as well as political parties across the spectrum must be brought to a consensus and a new military operation should be launched,” he told Al Jazeera.
Former army officer Zeeshan said the recent attacks in Pakistan are a result of the political and security environment in the country already battling instability and uncertainty.
“There is clear instability and polarisation in the society, which is leaving a vacuum. TTP is utilising this space and exerting pressure on a government which is facing multiple challenges. It is a good moment for them to perpetrate violence and force the government to negotiate with them on their terms,” he said.
Basit warned that unless the Pakistani military acts soon, 2023 could see a lot of bloodshed.
“By the looks of it, if the state doesn’t actively wage a war against these armed groups, we should brace ourselves for a volatile, violent year in terms of internal security. I don’t think this violence will slow down anytime soon,” he told Al Jazeera.