Pakistan's Terrorism Landscape in the Wake of America's Afghanistan Withdrawal
On March 8, 2022, a suicide bomber blew himself up with an explosive belt in the city of Sibi, which is in the province of Balochistan, Pakistan. The terrorist slightly missed the convoy of Pakistani President Arif Alvi who spoke at a festival that took place in the city. The attack, for which the Islamic State Pakistan Province (ISPP) claimed responsibility, killed at least seven people and injured at least 28. Just a few days earlier, an Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP) terrorist entered a Shiite Mosque in Peshawar in the middle of Friday’s main prayer, killed the two security guards at the entrance, and blew himself up with at least 61 other worshipers.
These two deadly suicide bombings carried out by the Islamic State are a continuation of the robust and diverse terror threat in the country, which has been exacerbated in ways by the American withdrawal from and the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. In addition to the Islamic State (both Khorasan and Pakistan provinces), other terrorist organizations in Pakistan like the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have been active. According to global intelligence sources, Pakistan supported the Taliban and preferred to maintain chaos in Afghanistan during the period of American stay in the country. It is now experiencing the consequences of the Taliban’s ineffective governance in Afghanistan, which is spilling into its territory.
Even before the two deadly Islamic State suicide bombings on January 27, 2022, the Pakistan Terrorist Organization known as the Baluch Liberation Front attacked a Pakistani military post north of the port of Gwadar in the Kech province of Kochi. The attack, which killed about ten Pakistani soldiers, was the largest that the BLF had carried out in many months. On February 2, the organization carried out a double attack on two Pakistani military bases. The assault included light gunfire, explosives, and suicide bombers in cars. The result has been devastating both militarily and propagandistically for the Pakistani government. The attack on the camp in Nushki province lasted about 12 hours until the Pakistani security forces managed to gain the upper hand. In contrast, the attack on the camp in Panjgur province lasted over two days, and according to local reports included hours of gun battles, shelling, and the downing of a military glider. Over a dozen deaths were reported among local security forces.
One of the reasons for the rise of terrorism in Pakistan lies in the rapid disintegration of the Afghan security forces of the Ghani administration in early August 2021, along with the withdrawal of foreign forces from neighboring Afghanistan, which enabled the conditions for the Taliban to seize power in Kabul.
Pakistan, like Afghanistan, also faced a ‘Taliban’ security problem. The country has been waging a campaign against the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) since 2007, a terrorist organization with an ideology similar to its Afghan counterpart, whose goal is to overthrow the current government and establish an Islamic caliphate based solely on Sharia law.
Pakistan has maintained extensive security ties with the United States throughout its tenure in Afghanistan. Although ironically Pakistan also aided the Afghan Taliban at the same time. (The Pakistani government has denied any political or military support to the terrorist organization.)
Pakistani support for the Taliban spanned a wide range of areas, coming from both the private sector and various branches of government. From financing, military training, and diplomatic assistance to the supply of fuel and logistical equipment. All of these have contributed in some capacity to the Taliban achieving results on the surface, alongside diplomatic results. The organization, which to the naked eye is made up of ragtag militants and very little technology, was backed by the hand of a nuclear power. The ISI, Pakistan’s main intelligence service, helped turn the Taliban into a trained, effective, and threatening military organization to the point that the security forces of the previous Afghan regime surrendered to it with almost no fighting.
Pakistan's pursuit of its national security interests has been and remains a major source of political chaos in Afghanistan. On the one hand, the present reality allows Pakistan to focus on the front lines of the struggle against India over the Kashmir region, but on the other hand, it may produce a counter-effect—resulting in a spillover of terrorist activity over Pakistan’s border.
It seems that, so far, Pakistan’s plans have not worked so well. The victory of the Taliban, which was portrayed as the victory of the jihadists over the Americans and the West, served as an inspiration for terrorist organizations around the world. A UN report released in early February says that since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom than ever before in the country. This should be of great concern to Pakistani officials, especially given that between 5,500-3,000 Pakistani Taliban fighters are reportedly operating from Afghanistan, according to the report.
The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) is the largest militant opposition within Pakistan, carrying out many high-profile terrorist acts in the country, mainly against security personnel, government, and foreign workers. In April 2021, the TTP carried out an attack on a luxury hotel in the city of Quetta, where the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan was reportedly staying. At least five people were killed in the attack, while the Chinese ambassador, who wasn’t present at the hotel at the time, survived. Since taking the reins in Afghanistan, the Afghan Taliban has tried to bridge the gap between the parties in order to put out the flames in Pakistan and even led the parties to sign a ceasefire agreement on November 8, 2021. Although with time the TTP held that “the ceasefire cannot continue.”
Another group that has made headlines in Pakistan in the last few weeks is the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a smaller terrorist organization whose goal (as the BLF) is to “liberate” the province of Balochistan from Pakistan and gain independence. Recently, on the 26 of April, a female suicide bomber from BLA exploded inside Karachi University. Balochistan is the largest of the four provinces of Pakistan (43.6% of the total land area) and is rich in natural resources such as gas, oil, and minerals. The population in Balochistan is in part tribal and diverse with the majority being Baluchi (which makes up the BLA) or Pashtun.
The BLA and BLF accuse the Pakistani government of stealing resources in Balochistan without cooperating with the local tribes and directing its attacks against gas and infrastructure projects, alongside security forces and foreign workers. These attacks not only cause damage but also endanger tens of millions of dollars in Pakistani-Chinese developments, which are part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a component of the Chinese Belt and Road project. In the past year, the BLA has carried out several attacks to kill Chinese workers, one of them was a suicide attack near the town of Gwadar.
The threat to Chinese citizens and investments in Pakistan could undermine cooperation between the two countries and cause considerable economic damage to Pakistan. The TTP, BLA, and BLF understand that such attacks can put heavy pressure on the government.
And if that’s not enough, Islamic State Khorasan Province, which killed no less than 180 people in a terrorist attack at Kabul airport, is taking advantage of the chaos in Afghanistan to intensify and try to expand its footprint in Pakistan as well, as seen in the two suicide bombings in early March. Significant terrorist attacks in the area near the border with Afghanistan managed to kill several security personnel.
Pakistan is facing considerable security challenges from an array of violent non-state actors. The weakness of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan is felt on both sides of the “Durand Line”. Pakistan, which is facing a robust terrorist threat, needs to find creative solutions to the new situation in which it finds itself.