Since the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb on June 15, 2014, Pakistan’s efforts to combat militant groups like Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have somewhat revived Washington’s flagging confidence in Islamabad and have led to greater levels of cooperation between the two countries. However, a statement made on January 13, 2015 by U.S Secretary of State John Kerry at a press conference in Islamabad suggests that America still believes Pakistan is playing a “double game”; that it is continuing to use terrorist groups to advance its own foreign policy interests. After being questioned by a reporter about Pakistan’s willingness to target groups like the Haqqani Network, the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e Tayyiba Secretary Kerry said: “we’ve been very clear with the highest levels of the Government of Pakistan that Pakistan has to target all militant groups, the Haqqani Network and others…And Pakistan has made it very clear that they intend to do so.” While it is as yet too early to say whether or not Pakistan will remain committed to the war on terror, one thing is clear: Pakistan’s strategic interests in Afghanistan and India will be difficult to promote if they are forced to sever ties with all the militant groups currently residing within their borders.
Ample evidence of Pakistan’s dealings with terrorist groups has emerged over the past decade. In 2006, a leaked British Defence Ministry Report claimed that “Indirectly Pakistan (through the [Inter-Services Agency]) has been supporting terrorism and extremism.” In a 2009 interview, U.S Defence Secretary Robert Gates accused Pakistan of “playing both sides”, claiming that they use groups like the Taliban to ensure that they will have leverage in Afghanistan once the U.S leaves. This explains why Pakistan has not received certification from the State Department for having met the requirements of the Kerry-Lugar Bill (in which authorisation for appropriation of funds requires, amongst other things, evidence of a “sustained commitment…towards combatting terrorist groups”) since 2011. Progress has been made, State Department officials claim, but not enough.
As far as Islamabad is concerned, to the extent that terrorist groups have helped advance Pakistan’s goals, they have served a useful purpose. But the cost of entering into a Faustian pact with them has been immense. It has resulted in the emergence of factions and splinter groups who attack Pakistanis and push Islamabad into conflicts which have the potential to undermine their security at home and their strategic interests abroad.
Two incidents in particular are responsible for the vigour with which the Pakistani army is currently waging war against militant groups. The first occurred on June 8, 2014, when ten members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a TTP affiliate, launched an attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, killing twenty six people and wounding eighteen. In the days following this attack, the Pakistani military launched a series of attacks which culminated in Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a comprehensive military offensive which is being waged against militant groups in North Waziristan. So far, the campaign has brought about the deaths of more than 1,100 militants and dramatically reduced the operational capabilities of groups fighting in the area. It has also demonstrated an increased willingness on Islamabad’s part to hunt down groups which it is alleged to have supported. When Pakistan’s army chief Raheel Sharif visited Washington in November 2014, he was praised by the Pentagon for having targeted the Haqqani Network, which both the U.S and Afghan governments have accused Pakistan of protecting in the past.
The second incident took place on December 16, 2014, when nine members of the TTP entered a school in Peshawar and killed 145 people, 132 of whom were children. It was, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said, a “decisive moment”, and one in which should cause Pakistanis to unite against a common enemy. In the days following the attack Pakistan’s military, intelligence and police forces launched successive punitive strikes against militants, resulting in numerous deaths including TTP commander Abid Muchar. It is significant that after the attack, Pakistan’s Prime Minister said that there would no longer be any distinction drawn between “good Taliban and bad Taliban”; a tacit acknowledgement of the patronage which Pakistan had formerly bestowed upon terrorist groups.
After the massacre in Peshawar, there was an outpouring of grief across the country. The Pakistan People’s Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement announced a three day period of mourning, while the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam declared that scheduled protests would be postponed, out of respect for the deceased and their families. In Islamabad, protestors gathered outside the Red Mosque when a hard-line Islamic cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz refused to condemn the attack. For now, it seems as though Pakistan has been united against terror. Whether or not this state continues will, as Secretary Kerry said, be determined by the actions by the government “over the coming weeks.” But in order to ensure that Pakistan remains committed to the fight against terror two things must happen: first, its security services must stop using terrorist groups as proxies and second, its leadership must rethink its ambitions in Afghanistan and India. Until then, the situation in Pakistan and its relationship with the United States seems unlikely to change.
Two days ago, on Monday November 11th, Nasiruddin Haqqani, a senior member of the leadership of the Haqqani network was assassinated in Islamabad. The exact circumstances of his death, perpetrators of the attack and the subsequent removal of his body back to Waziristan remain mysterious. The Haqqani network, while based in Pakistan, is one of the major factions (and most capable) of the Afghani Taliban fighting ISAF forces in Afghanistan. The killing comes at a sensitive time for Pakistan – the leader of the Pakistani Taliban (or TTP) Hakimullah Mehsud was killed earlier this month in a drone strike, and the nascent peace process in the country appears to be on hold for the foreseeable future.
Nasiruddin Haqqani was the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the group’s founder and a noted commander in the anti-Soviet fighting of the 1980s. His brother, Sirajuddin, is the day-to-day operational commander of the group. Nasiruddin’s primary responsibility appears to have been as the group’s financier, responsible for business ventures, outreach and fundraising abroad. This reportedly included numerous trips to the Middle East and the Gulf region in recent years.
Nasiruddin was returning home from a mosque through the district of Baru Kahu suburb of Islamabad when multiple gunmen on motorcycles shot him, also killing an innocent bystander. Local authorities originally denied that Nasiruddin had been killed, or was even present, as his body was spirited six hours away, and past numerous military checkpoints, to Waziristan.
Pakistan has long been accused of supporting the Haqqani network, something that would explain why such a senior leader could apparently live unmolested in Islamabad for several years. While the TTP aim to overthrow the Pakistani state, the Afghani Taliban retain close connections with the Pakistani security forces, who use them counter Indian influence in Afghanistan. The Haqqani network in particular has been labelled in the past as being veritable arms of the Pakistani military intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). The Haqqani Network is considered the most dangerous of the Afghani Taliban factions, and has been responsible for numerous high profile attacks in Kabul in recent years.
The killing comes at a particular problematic time for Pakistan’s security situation. Nasiruddin was reportedly involved in facilitating dialogue and potential peace talks between the TTP and the Pakistani government. These talks were apparently on the verge of beginning when the TTP leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in a US drone strike. At first, it appeared that Khan Said Sajna, a powerful subordinate in favour of peace talks, would ascend to the leadership with reports even confirming he had been appointed. However, another leader, Mullah Fazlullah eventually emerged as the TTP’s new leader. Fazlullah reportedly rejects peace talks with the Pakistani state, and his appointment has likely crushed any serious chance of dialogue for the foreseeable future.
Security forces across Pakistan are on alert, with the possibility of revenge attacks in the country extremely high. Several Taliban fighters were killed in a shootout with police in Karachi today. The Ashura gatherings, an important part of the Shia Muslim religious calendar, begin on the 15th of November. With Shia Muslims a common target of terrorist attacks, this period is usually a tense time for Pakistan that sees thousands of troops deployed to ensure order, with the threat of violence even higher this year due to recent events.
Yesterday, Friday November 1st, Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP) was killed by an American drone strike. Though Mehsud’s death has been inaccurately reported in the past, in this instance the TTP has confirmed he was killed and has been buried. Pakistani officials have reacted furiously to the strike, as they were on the verge of beginning peace talks with the TTP in the hope of ending the insurgency. A particularly high degree of security awareness should be maintained in Pakistan, as the TTP has responded ferociously to the targeted killings of leaders with revenge attacks in the past, including against foreigners. Mehsud, reportedly in his mid-30s, was on his way home from a TTP meeting at a local mosque when the car he was travelling was hit, killing him along with 4 others in the vehicle. The attack took place in North Waziristan, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a series of provinces dominated by militant groups. Mehsud had loose control over the more than 30 groups that comprise the TTP. He took over from the group’s founder, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike in 2009. The United States had placed a $5 million bounty on his head if captured alive. Hakimullah Mehsud’s leadership saw a noticeable expansion of TTP activities in Pakistan, and intensified the insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives across the country. This has increased further in recent months, with regular and major attacks in Pakistan, including those targeting non-traditional victims, such as Pakistan’s tiny Christian minority. The TTP under his leadership was also responsible for the attempted bombing in Times Square in 2010, and the attack that killed 7 CIA employees in Afghanistan in 2009. Pakistani officials are furious about Mehsud’s death, with the killing threatening to further damage already strained US-Pakistan relations. The new government of Nawaz Sharif has been pursuing peace talks with the TTP in a bid to end the country’s security situation, already extremely problematic and spiralling out of control in recent years. Reportedly, a three man negotiation team was travelling to meet Mehsud and begin peace talks today. Pakistani officials have accused the United States of attempting to sabotage the nascent peace process, and the two nation’s already troubled relationship will likely deteriorate further as a result. Some local leaders in the FATA have also pledged to cut crucial supply lines to ISAF forces in Afghanistan. However, the peace talks may actually benefit from Mehsud’s death. Though he was in favour of opening negotiations, his conditions and views were seen as relatively harsh and conservative. His successor, Khan Said Sajna, was appointed today and is the leader of a strong TTP faction that is notably more open to discussions with the government in Islamabad. In the long term, the ascendance of more peaceable TTP factions may play in Pakistan’s favour. In the short term however, serious challenges remain. Some TTP factions are reportedly already unhappy with the new leadership, claiming not enough time was taken over the decision. Factionalism in the group may intensify, as it is already a very factional and decentralised organisation facing serious questions surrounding its future and talks with the government. Immediate effects to TTP operations are also unlikely, as the group operates largely without a centralised leadership and has an amorphous organisational structure. The TTP has pledged to carry out revenge attacks for the death of Mehsud, and it is very likely to carry this out. The group possesses a formidable capability for targeted and indiscriminate attacks throughout the country, and security has been stepped up across Pakistan as a result. Particularly concerning, the TTP has reportedly formed a new sub-group designed to target foreigners in revenge for the deaths of leaders in drone strikes – the killing of senior leader Wali-ur Rehman in June prompted the execution of 10 foreigner climbers at the base of Nanga Parbat. An extremely high degree of security awareness should be maintained in Pakistan, as the likelihood of revenge attacks for Mehsud’s death is very high.
Yesterday, October 15th, the governor of Afghanistan’s strategically crucial Logar province was assassinated as he was due to make a speech marking the holiday of Eid al-Adha. This killing is one of few major assassinations of prominent government officials this year; however it highlights the continued goal of insurgents in Afghanistan to deprive the coalition-backed government of competent officials in light of coming elections and the withdrawal of ISAF forces in 2014.
Governor Arsallah Jamal was preparing to give a speech at a mosque in Logar province, when a bomb apparently planted inside the microphone he was due to use was detonated, killing him instantly. At least 15 others were injured, 8 of whom remain in a critical condition. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, however a faction of the Taliban insurgency is almost certainly responsible.
Though Arsallah Jamal had only been appointed as governor of Logar in April, he had previously served as governor of the province of Khost, which shares a border with Pakistan’s tribal region of Waziristan. He was an expert in rural development, and had worked for numerous NGOs, most recently in Canada. He was a close friend of President Hamid Karzai, and managed his 2009 election campaign. Arsallah Jamal had also survived assassination attempts in the past.
The attack took place in Logar’s provincial capital, Pul-e-Alam, a mere 37 miles south of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Logar is a strategically vital province sometimes referred to as the “gate to Kabul”, lying as it does directly to the south and controlling many of the major road approaches to the capital. Insurgents have stepped up their campaign in the province this year, which has seen violence skyrocket and large swathes of Logar fall under Taliban control. Taliban control of Logar would make it far easier for them to launch attacks in Kabul.
Logar province is also the location of the world’s second biggest copper mine, Aynak, the mining rights to which were awarded to a Chinese firm in 2009. Getting the mine up and running was one of Jamal’s major priorities, and may have contributed to his death. Alternatively, Jamal also made the news recently when he revealed that the US military had recently arrested Latif Mehsud, a senior commander in the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), something else that may have made him a target.
Insurgents in Afghanistan have also waged a long running campaign targeting government officials, in hopes of reducing the ability of Hamid Karzai’s government to function. Over 1000 mid-level officials have been assassinated in the past ten years, while several high profile officials, including numerous provincial governors, have also been murdered. With the state bureaucracy and military of Afghanistan weak, the removal of competent officials, leaders and managers could have serious long-term implications on the sustainability of state institutions. Leadership of provincial governors is also regarded as a key factor in delivering next year’s presidential election.
Following a devastating terrorist attack on members of Pakistan’s small Christian minority at the weekend, leading community figures are expressing concerns both about the reaction of major political figures and despair about the government’s apparent inability to prevent such attacks, along with fear about the possibility the community may be targeted again. Pakistan has seen widespread demonstrations and unrest as a result of the bombing, attributed to factions of the Pakistani Taliban and widely seen as likely torpedoing recent government overtures to the militants controlling large parts of the country.
The attack happened on Sunday, 22nd September. Two suicide bombers attacked the congregation at the 100 year old All Saints church in Peshawar just after the Sunday service had finished. 85 people were killed in the blasts, which left over 120 injured. This was Pakistan’s worst ever attack on the Christian minority, and it bore the hallmarks of many similar incidents targeting Pakistan’s Shia population.
Junood ul-Hifsa, a branch of Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP, the ‘Pakistani Taliban)’, claimed responsibility for the attack. This is the same group that reportedly murdered 11 foreign climbers at the base of the mountain Nanga Parbat in June this year. Junood ul-Hifsa was reportedly established to target foreigners and non-Muslims in retaliation for American drone strikes against militants. Another terrorist group with links to the TTP, Jandullah, also claimed responsibility for the attack, and it remains unclear who exactly perpetrated the bombing as yet. The TTP’s main spokesman officially denounced the bombing; however the TTP’s usual practice is to deny involvement in bombings with large civilian casualties.
The attack led to widespread protests and community anger throughout the country. Crowds took to the streets in Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi to demonstrate against the Government’s apparent failure to protect minority groups, with the police being forced to use tear gas in some cases. Increasing ethnic homogenisation has seen Pakistan’s ethnic minority population decrease from 15% to 4% currently. Christians make up only 1.8% of Pakistan’s population, and are an extremely politically weak ethnic group as a result.
While this is the first major terrorist attack on Christians (with past attacks often focusing on Shia Muslims instead), the Christian minority has for many years suffered from persecution in the country. Largely poor and impoverished, they have been a common target for vindictive prosecutions under blasphemy laws, which are largely used to settle scores. In March of this year, communal violence erupted after blasphemy accusations and saw the torching of dozens of Christians homes by a Muslim mob, while in 2010 a prominent politician who defended a Christian accused of blasphemy was murdered by his own police bodyguard. Members of Pakistan’s Christian community worry that the country’s spiralling Sunni/Shia violence will begin to spill over and target them in future after this latest attack.
The incident is also a blow for the Pakistani government’s hope to begin some form of peace talks with the TTP. The government of Nawaz Sharif had been criticised in the past for focusing on economic issues and lacking any clear political will to tackle Pakistan’s deteriorating security situation. However, late last month they made a controversial overture to the TTP regarding the possibility of negotiations. These talks divided the Taliban movement, with some rejecting any possibility of talks and others cautiously welcoming the possibility. The chances of success are now low, after both this attack and the murder of a senior army commander last week. Some analysts believe the offer of talks by the government is in fact a ploy – by offering seemingly impossible negotiations to an extremely fragmentary coalition of terrorists, the subsequent breakdown of talks may allow the government to build public support for a harsh military crackdown to restore some semblance of order.
While in the past foreigners were rarely targeted in the country’s endemic terrorist violence, the attack on Nanga Parbat on June and this recent bombing of Christian’s suggests attacks may be broadening in scope from their traditional targets of security forces or Shia Muslims. An extremely high degree of security awareness should be maintained at all times while in Pakistan.