Edited by Alexandra Huggins
Pakistani politicians’ grandstanding and inability to negotiate are consistent elements of the nation’s politics. But the elites’ penchant for prioritizing political gain over the welfare of the state threatens to impose more self-inflicted pain on Pakistan’s most significant asset: its provincial security infrastructure. While Pakistan’s municipal and provincial security forces are resilient, no institution can be expected to heal, much less thrive, as it encounters one devastating trauma after another. As if biblical floods, cyclical debt, and an energy crisis weren’t enough, an old enemy has reared its head once more to threaten Pakistan’s precarious security situation: the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). It is time for Pakistan’s political and military establishment to wake up and reconcile with the fact that they can’t negotiate their way to peace. The state must wage war against the Pakistani Taliban and their ideology before they inflict more violence on Pakistan.
On January 30th, an estimated 100 people (primarily police officers) lost their lives at the hands of a TTP suicide bomber in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, with over 217 injured. On February 17th, the TTP targeted the office of the Karachi police chief, in which four people were killed and 19 were injured. This new wave of bold terrorist activity comes following a breakdown in talks between the Pakistani political and security establishment and the TTP last November.
The decision to negotiate rather than destroy the Pakistani Taliban was undertaken under the auspices of both the former Prime Minister Imran Khan and, as new rumors indicate, the former Army Chief Bajwa. Khan and Bajwa’s rationale for engaging with the TTP is excruciatingly simple – they are Pakistani citizens and would like to come back.
In a recent address, Khan outlines that “when the Afghan war ended…some 30,000 to 40,000 Pakistani tribal fighters wanted to come back…The PTI government had two options: either kill all of them or reach an agreement with them and allow them to settle in the province.” While this policy holds a veneer of practicality, it was doomed to fail. The TTP, emboldened by their peers’ victory in Afghanistan, would not accept anything less than their own Shariah haven across the Afghan border. The group is both fundamentally opposed to and ideologically driven to eradicate the concept of a constitutional Pakistan. Foolishly, the Pakistani military apparatus and the former PTI government under Imran Khan believed that they could overlook this philosophy and attempted to engage the terrorist group in dialogue.
Predictably, talks between the government and the TTP broke down as the TTP refused to drop its ridiculous demands, calling for revoking the merger of Pakistan’s tribal areas (FATA) with Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, along with releasing jailed TTP members and enforcing Shariah law within their historical areas of influence on the Afghan border. The Pakistani state refused, and talks were placed on hold as Imran Khan’s government was ousted from office. This cycle of pointless negotiations not only entertains the far-fetched demands of terrorist groups but emboldens and legitimizes them as valid political entities.
As the never-ending political power struggle took place in Islamabad, the TTP capitalized on the distraction and leveraged its clout to increase the size of its ranks and, subsequently, its lethality. The TTP found a willing partner in Pakistan’s separatist Baloch insurgency, raising the number of groups that have merged under its ever-growing umbrella to 22. As the old adage goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Last year, the group and its affiliates were responsible for at least 150 attacks in Pakistan, primarily in the northwest of the country.
The current coalition government has taken a different approach to the TTP but is burdened with power politics and lacks an electoral mandate. During an interview, Pakistan’s Federal Human Rights Minister Riaz Pirzada claimed that the current government and military are divided on continuing negotiations with the TTP. The ruling coalition’s leadership is reluctant to continue to engage the militant group the same way as before, but has no power to command the generals in Rawalpindi to fight them. Islamabad is burdened with myriad challenges and, as of now, has only been capable of laying the blame on the former PTI government for allowing the TTP to enter and resettle in Pakistan in the first place.
The TTP’s recent attacks on provincial police forces indicate a dangerous shift in their political strategy. The group has now realized that if it were to attack military institutions, it would face the full might of the Pakistani military as opposed to their preferred approach that prioritizes negotiations. But in an effort to gain leverage and force the government to restart negotiations with the state, the TTP has resolved to target police institutions instead. This damages local law enforcement infrastructure and erodes the morale of a desperately underfunded public good. While the military has faced its fair share of terrorist violence, it is municipal and provincial police forces that have faced the brunt of terrorist activities. Shortly after the deadly bombing in Peshawar, a rare protest was staged by the Peshawar police force requesting that the state do more to protect them and to fully investigate the lapse in security.
Islamabad and Rawalpindi must be united in both missions and resolve to eliminate the Pakistani Taliban. The two disparate entities must send a signal to the terrorists that their efforts are futile. But most importantly, it must signal to municipal and provincial police forces that they are supported by the state and that those responsible will be held accountable. The military will not willingly wage this war nor listen to the politicians in Islamabad unless the political elites unite in calling for eliminating the TTP. A united political front, backed by the will of the people, has the potential to compel the generals in Rawalpindi to act because it is only the military that has the capacity to eliminate this threat. Pakistan will only have a chance at pursuing prosperity when both the political and military elite realize that serving the interests of the state is in their personal interests.