Trying to understand the attack on the bus carrying Chinese workers and paramilitary guards in Dasu, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Wednesday, revealed an incredibly surprising and worrying landscape.
Was this the beginning of the blowback everyone had been expecting—and the generals had warned of in a recent security briefing to the Parliament—once the Taliban began to gain strength and territory in Afghanistan?
After all, there hadn’t been much in mainstream news about bombings or other attacks inside Pakistan in recent months.
Data collected and analysed by the Combatting Terrorism Centre at West Point (CTC) between 1 January, 2021 and 31 March, 2021 showed there had been 61 attacks by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) against the state of Pakistan on its soil.
A United Nations terrorism monitoring report from February 2021 stated that there had been a “sharp increase in attacks in the region,” with one member state reporting “TTP was responsible for more than 100 cross-border attacks between July and October 2020."
Pakistan Govt's Attempts to Avoid Confronting TTP
The bus attack may well have been over the hundredth attack this year at this rate. Seeing the way the government was at pains to make it out to be a “gas leak”, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect there has been a deliberate effort to cover up the blowback which is picking up pace.
Even this attack may never have been reported, or recognised as one, had not the Chinese had a strong reaction calling on Pakistan to “severely punish the perpetrators” and “earnestly protect the safety of Chinese nationals, organisations, and projects in Pakistan". Indeed, the statement of the Chinese embassy says it launched “the emergency plan immediately”, contacted the Pakistani army, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior and others. The Chinese embassy requested them to carry out rescue and treatment in the first place and to strengthen security for Chinese citizens.
As TTP Gains Confidence, Pakistan Army Falters
Only weeks ago, the powers that be had attempted to present the huge Johar Town, Lahore blast in front of Hafiz Saeed’s house also as a “gas leak”. It is clear, then, from the stunning number of attacks reported by the CTC (invisible to the public) and the pattern of attempting to cover up security failures, that the TTP is resurgent. The state has been under an intensifying attack which the security apparatus has known about, but has been keeping under cover.
What is also very clear from recent reports and videos emerging on social media is that the army desperately wants to appease or somehow deal with the TTP such that it does not have to fight it.
Growing Taliban Presence in Pakistan
Just in the past two days, flag-waving Taliban rallies were seen in Quetta in the “red zone” (high security area), in Peshawar, and other cities.
Not many days ago, ‘most wanted’ terrorist commander Habib-ur-Rehman, accused of several murderous attacks, including the slaughter of 10 foreign tourists in Nanga Parbat in the early 2010s, suddenly surfaced in Babusar Gilgit-Baltistan and held open court for eight hours. But the “State” is nowhere to be seen challenging, arresting or punishing these elements.
Instead, members of the National Assembly cannot travel to their own constituencies in former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) or to Balochistan.
The Army's Failed Attempts to Tame the TTP
This points to only one conclusion: the army is trying hard not to fight militants for fear of blowback, and only attempting to control information and trying to smother voices of those, like MNAs Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar and the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) generally, who are bringing these facts to the public domain.
Indeed, most of the videos of the militant rallies I came across were amplified—and most probably recorded too—by members of the PTM.
What is also very clear is that the strategy of appeasement is not working and the TTP is stronger, more organised, and escalating its offensive.
It had weakened and much of its leadership had joined the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan after military operations of 2014.
But disillusionment with the ISKP’s focus on fighting the Afghan Taliban instead of focusing on Pakistan, and the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud after Mulla Fazlullah’s death, enabled the TTP to regroup and gain back its eight or so splintered factions.
This began in the summer of 2018. Under Mehsud, new guidelines were issued with the aim of reducing infighting, and “popularising” the TTP in the Pakistani public.
TTP's Strategic Targeting Includes the Chinese
In the past decade, the TTP was indiscriminate in its violence; bombing civilians including women and children, resulting in public disgust and hence, recruitment.
The new restrictions, operative since September 2018, have resulted in a startling change in the pattern of violence. Mostly security forces including intelligence agencies and paramilitary forces were attacked, violence against civilians was curtailed, and civilian fatalities constituted a much smaller proportion when compared to previous years.
But the reason the increasing attacks did not catch the public eye was because most of these attacks were carried out in remote border areas where the TTP has had better access from its safe havens across Pakistan’s western border, army personnel are more vulnerable. Most importantly, the media has little or no access to the border regions.
It is also noteworthy that the TTP attacks Chinese interests wherever it can to discourage Chinese investment in the country, the only direct foreign investment of any note happening in the country at the moment. In April this year, the Serena in Quetta was bombed by the TTP where the Chinese ambassador had been staying on a visit.
With USA Gone, Who Will Tackle the Taliban Now?
For the TTP, the aim remains the same ie, a takeover of the state via jihad, but the modus operandi has changed. Other very important things have also changed for the worse.
Consider, back in 2007, when the TTP was formed, it was a new entity. Now, it is already in place with a clearer strategy having learnt from some of its mistakes of the past.
It has unwavering support of the Afghan Taliban, which are now sweeping across much of Afghanistan (for the first time ever the DG ISI admitted that the Afghan Taliban and the TTP were aligned at the security briefing last month, and to expect blowback in the event of Kabul’s fall).
And the US has left the building. Earlier, Pakistan was partnering with the US in the war on terror and the US helped target TTP commanders with drone or air strikes.
Literally every TTP commander ever killed was in a US drone strike, be it Khan Said Sajna, Qari Abdullah Dawar, Umar Rehman Fateh, Maqbool Dawar, Mullah Fazlullah, Baitullah Mehsud, or scores of others. Who will help kill the TTP now?
Trust Deficit Between Pakistan's Citizens & the Army
Add to all this, the domestic political opposition to the army’s wanton suicidal policies.
It is constantly being called out by the political opposition for its meddling in domestic politics, stealing the last general election for a puppet, ruining all foreign relations, gagging of the media, human rights violations, and landing Pakistan in an economic meltdown.
There is unrest and resentment among the Pashtuns, Sindhis, Baloch, Gilgitis, Kashmiris, and now even the Punjabis. At a time that the army has to face a formidable enemy in daunting circumstances, it does not even enjoy widespread public support because of its adventures at home.
Social media is rife with resentment over all this as well as scandals of massive corruption within its ranks, and its chokehold over financial and other resources. The public is now well aware of the lifestyles, properties, and land grabs by military personnel and their cronies with complete impunity. Even where there is solid evidence of corruption, officers enjoy complete impunity.
They enjoy impunity over rights violations. There was a wave of resentment and fierce criticism just this week over the PTI government approving a 15% increase in army personnel salaries over and above the annual budgeted increase of 10% for all government servants. The public are tired of being attacked as traitors if they question any of this.
The public is aware of who is responsible for starting and losing every war, the country’s rivers, and its territory, and being told, “we keep you safe while you sleep at night.”
The public is also acutely aware that the militancy and extremism problem of Pakistan is also the result of the establishment’s usurpation of policy making.
So, the only way one sees public support swinging towards the army in this existential fight, is if it withdraws completely into its Constitutional role, and serves them at their representatives’ pleasure.
(Gul Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and rights activist. She tweets @GulBukhari. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)