As attacks increase, militants begin new era of bloodshed in Pakistan | ET REALITY


It was a bloody reminder that the dark days of extremist violence appeared to have returned to Pakistan: a suicide attack at a religious festival in the country’s southwest last week that left around 60 people dead.

For almost a decade, Pakistan had apparently broken the cycle of such deadly attacks. In 2014, the country’s security forces carried out a large-scale military operation in the tribal areas near Afghanistan, forcing militants across the border and returning relative peace to the restive border region.

But since the Taliban seized power in neighboring Afghanistan in August 2021, offering some groups safe haven on Afghan soil and launching a crackdown on others who pushed their fighters into neighboring Pakistan, violence has returned with a vengeance. The number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan increased by about 50 percent during the Taliban’s first year in power, compared to the previous year, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, which monitors extremist violence and has its headquarters in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.

This year, the pace of attacks has continued to increase. The attacks themselves have also become bolder, reviving the fears of a nation frightened by terrorism. In January, a suicide bombing at a heavily guarded mosque killed more than 100 people. A month later, militants attacked the heart of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, and waged an hours-long siege on police headquarters. Another suicide bombing, at a political rally, killed more than 50 people in July.

In the latest massacre, on Friday, a suicide bomber caused an explosion at a religious procession that left bloodshed in the street. No group has claimed responsibility yet.

Visiting the families of the victims, General Syed Asim Munir, head of the Pakistani army, reiterated the government’s commitment to carry out a nationwide military operation against armed groups.

“The armed forces, intelligence services and law enforcement agencies will not rest until the menace of terrorism is eradicated from the country,” General Munir said.

The violence has stoked fears that the region, already home to one of the world’s highest concentrations of groups on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, is becoming a hotbed of international terrorism. It has also fueled growing tensions between the Pakistani government and Taliban officials, who deny having offered shelter to militant groups, including their ally, the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP.

So far, there is little evidence of significant action by the Pakistani military to root out the militants. Pakistan can no longer count on the American military support that helped it drive out militants a decade ago, and many believe the country, already facing entrenched political and economic crises, is largely powerless to stop the violence.

The Pakistani government’s military efforts are hampered “primarily due to political divisions and financial constraints,” said Adam Weinstein, deputy director of the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “It is doubtful that they can sustain a full campaign against the TTP,” he added.

The Pakistani Taliban, an ideological twin of the Taliban in Afghanistan, seek to impose strict Islamist rule in Pakistan’s border areas and have been behind most of the attacks in the past two years. Founded in 2007, the group controlled swaths of tribal areas along the border until a 2014 military crackdown.

With the Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, the group has reemerged. Hundreds of Pakistani Taliban fighters were released from Afghan prisons during the takeover. According to Pakistani authorities, they were armed with US military equipment that was once provided to the US-backed Afghan government. The group’s current leader, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, has also intensified his efforts to bolster the group’s ranks, successfully attracting groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, as well as fighters from anti-Shia groups and several Pakistani militants who were part of the insurgency. Taliban in Afghanistan. .

In recent months, the Pakistani Taliban has carried out relentless attacks, mainly against Pakistani security forces in tribal areas along the border. The clashes have led security forces to suffer their worst casualties in eight years: Nearly 400 military, police and other personnel have been killed so far this year, according to a report from the Center for Security Research and Studiesan Islamabad-based think tank.

Many police and soldiers say they feel unprepared to fight the insurgents.

Muhammad, a 34-year-old police officer from Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, said defending the mountainous district against well-armed insurgents was almost futile. A persistent pain in his leg reminds him of the danger: he suffered the wound when militants believed to be with the Pakistani Taliban opened fire on him and his colleagues during a routine night patrol in April.

“The attackers remained invisible to us, but they saw us clearly, probably using night vision goggles,” said Muhammad, who asked to use only his first name because he feared retaliation and was not authorized to speak to the media.

Pakistani officials have repeatedly called on the Taliban administration to rein in Pakistani militants. Instead, Taliban officials in Afghanistan have suggested that Pakistani officials address the militant group’s demands and have offered to mediate the talks. In recent months, frustration in Pakistan appeared to boil over: authorities announced last week that they would deport up to 1.1 million Afghans residing illegally in Pakistan, a move many saw as retaliation against the Taliban administration in Afghanistan.

To deepen the crisis, Pakistan has also faced a new wave of violence from the Islamic State’s affiliate in the region, known as Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K. Unlike the Pakistani Taliban, the Islamic State has been antagonistic to the Taliban in Afghanistan, saying they are not implementing true Sharia law and has faced brutal repression by Taliban security forces.

The Taliban have killed eight of the Islamic State’s leaders since the beginning of the year, according to US officials. But its offensive has also pushed some ISIS fighters into Pakistan, analysts say, where they have intensified their attacks.

For ordinary Pakistanis in the tribal areas, the return of militant violence has felt like a devastating return to when insurgents operated almost freely in the region, instilling a latent sense of fear in the daily lives of residents. In recent months, the militants have restarted their extortion plans, threatening businessmen and local leaders demanding large sums of money to prevent their families from being attacked.

In April, Ali, a rice trader who asked, for security reasons, that only his last name be used, received a threatening call that he said came from a phone number in Afghanistan. The voice on the line gave her an ultimatum: Pay $8,500 or his house would be attacked.

Ali initially alerted his local police station about the call and they dismissed the threat. Then, a small explosion destroyed the entrance to his house. He called the number again and eventually paid the extortionist about $2,200.

My family “was shaken from their sleep and traumatized by the midnight explosion in our house,” Ali said. “I can’t forget those horrible moments.”

The episode left him with the disturbing feeling that militants had sent informants to his neighborhood and market to identify wealthy targets to extort, he added. The police response was scant: officers recommended he install a security camera and advised him to limit his movements. Beyond that, the police could do nothing, they told him.

In response to the increase in violence, some people have chosen to pack their bags and leave their homes in tribal areas, fearing for their lives if militants invade the area once again.

Saeed Wazir, a construction contractor from the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa district of North Waziristan, left for Islamabad after an explosion that appeared to be aimed at a military convoy but instead hit a truck carrying workers. He said the current violence was almost more terrifying than before because the militants worked in the shadows, making the danger and their paranoia feel increasingly present.

“They now operate clandestinely and employ hit-and-run tactics,” Wazir said. “There is a constant fear of tripping over an explosive device on the road or being caught in a gunfight or suicide attack.”

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