North-west Pakistan in grip of deadly Taliban resurgence | Pakistan
The bomber exploded shortly before afternoon prayers, when a mosque in Peshawar’s busy Police Lines area would have been at its busiest. Hundreds of people, including many police officers, were inside when the device exploded, causing an explosion of such magnitude that the roof and wall collapsed and 100 people died.
Monday’s attack was one of the worst in recent years to hit Peshawar, a city in northwestern Pakistan that has been ruthlessly devastated by terrorists for decades. Hours after the attack, a low-level commander of one of the Pakistani Taliban factions known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for it in retaliation for the death of a militant in Afghanistan.
A TTP official later distanced himself from the incident, saying it was not their policy to attack mosques. However, this was just another escalation of violence claimed by the TTP in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which in recent months has found itself in the grip of a resurgence of deadly Taliban that the Pakistani government and powerful military seem powerless to deal with. .
Just two weeks ago, a police station on the outskirts of Peshawar came under a coordinated attack by well-equipped Taliban fighters. “The terrorists were armed with modern weapons and night vision goggles,” said Irshad Malik, assistant sub-inspector who was at the police station at the time of the attack. “They fired snipers at the officers and threw hand grenades at the police station.” Three officers were killed.
Raza Khan, another officer present, said that security agencies are “under attack throughout the province.” “A terrible situation,” he added. “Terrorists seem to be everywhere.”
The TTP, which is separate from the Taliban in Afghanistan but shares a similarly hardline Islamist ideology, has waged a bloody insurgency in Pakistan for the past 15 years, fighting for stricter enforcement of Islamic Sharia law. The group is responsible for some of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including the 2014 Peshawar school massacre that killed 132 children.
After fighting in 2014 and 2017, which resulted in much bloodshed, they were largely suppressed. However, since November they have stepped up their attacks again after peace talks with the government failed and the group announced an end to the truce.
Since then, the security situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Afghanistan’s neighboring province, has deteriorated sharply as the Pakistani Taliban carried out nearly a dozen deadly attacks on police and military posts. In one incident in December, Taliban detainees overpowered counterterrorism unit guards, seized control of the facility, and held them hostage for more than 24 hours, killing more than a dozen military and police officers.
Michael Kugelman, senior fellow at the Wilson Center for South Asia, said: “Increasing TTP attacks on Pakistani security forces are meant to send a simple but alarming message: the state cannot stop them.”
Many observers have warned of a seemingly uncontrollable resurgence of the TTP in Pakistan since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2020, after they seized control from the US-backed government and established brutal Islamic rule in the country. The triumph of the Taliban in Afghanistan was celebrated in Islamabad, including by then-Prime Minister Imran Khan, who declared that the country had escaped from the “shackles of slavery.”
But promises by the Afghan Taliban not to harbor TTP fighters turned out to be empty, and relations between the Pakistani government and the Taliban began to crumble.
“Pakistan’s mistake was that they thought the Taliban would want to help them curb the TPP,” Kugelman said. “The Taliban’s track record has been consistent: the group does not turn its back on its militant allies. He didn’t attack al-Qaeda, so why would he attack the TTP, which the Taliban have been ideologically linked to for years?”
Meanwhile, misguided efforts by the Khan government included the return of 5,000 TTP fighters to Pakistan from Afghanistan for rehabilitation and resettlement in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa tribal area. The program failed after ceasefire talks broke down and no funding could be found to relocate the militants, leaving more TTP fighters in Pakistan roaming freely on their home soil.
Defense Minister Khawaja Asif, who is in Shahbaz Sharif’s new government, confirmed that hundreds of TTP fighters were redeployed under Khan’s previous government. Asif has been critical of the failed rehabilitation plan, acknowledging that it instead contributed to fueling recent terrorist activity in the country.
He said that the TTP fighters “have not settled down like ordinary citizens. Instead, they are returning to their old ways, creating an atmosphere of fear in these areas.”
Asif described the situation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as “no doubt bad”. “They know it, we know it, everyone knows that the Pakistani Taliban are using Afghan soil for terrorism in Pakistan,” he said. “We would like to avoid a military operation, but if we are forced to use force, then we will have to do it.”
In Waziristan, a heavily militarized mountainous region bordering Afghanistan that has historically been the center of Taliban attacks and brutal security operations in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, locals have described how the presence of the Taliban could be felt again. They said there had been an influx of TTP fighters from Afghanistan and the Taliban now controlled many of the checkpoints at night.
“For more than a year, we have been watching TTP fighters cross Pakistani territory,” said Anwar Khpalwak of the local Voice of the People organization. Local residents described how the Pakistani Taliban now roamed the area freely, including the bazaar, and said they were involved in ransoms, kidnappings and extortion from local businesses.
Local anger at the government and the military was strong. Most of them had lost relatives during the years of terrorist attacks and retaliatory military operations, and the return of the TTP only meant more violence and bloodshed. “We have lost most of the men, and our widowed women will guard the house at night. We had peace for a very short period and it seems that the terrorists are back. We are tired of war,” said Malik Ala Noor Khan, 40, who lost 14 family members and joined a recent peace march.
Many believed that the TTP only used the truce with the government to regroup and reorganize so they could come back stronger. Manzoor Pashtin, founder of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM), which advocates for peace in violent tribal areas, said all the government’s talks with the Pakistani Taliban “have never brought us peace.”
“These talks were only supposed to give each other space for a few months,” he said. “In a sense, these negotiations were an excuse, a gateway to organize militant organizations in the tribal areas.”
When hundreds of locals gathered recently in Van, a city in Waziristan, they waved the white flags of peace in protest against the violence once again being imposed on their lives. “Through the peaceful protests of the people, we will continue to challenge this war that is being waged on our soil,” Pashtin said. “This is not our war.”