TTP’s new battleground
It was the most audacious cross-border incursion by the TTP. Reportedly, hundreds of heavily armed militants stormed Pakistani security posts in Chitral last week. The intruders were said to have been beaten back after three days of fierce fighting but the situation in the remote district is far from normal. Tension continues to grip the region.
There were some reports of the militants having infiltrated the border areas of the Kalash valley. The latest attacks in the treacherous mountainous region mark an expansion in the TTP’s cross-border operations. The strategically located northwestern part of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nuristan provinces has become the TTP’s latest battlefield. The two Afghan provinces house the largest sanctuaries for the outlawed Pakistani militant group.
With reports of the militants amassing on the border and tensions building up in the region for some time, the raid didn’t come as a surprise. According to some reports, the attacks were led by TTP head Noor Mehsud. The timing of the attacks seemed well calculated as the country celebrated Defence Day on Sept 6. The clashes left casualties on both sides.
While there has been a significant rise in cross-border raids in the former tribal regions, incidents of terrorist violence have also escalated in recent months, taking a huge toll on Pakistani security forces.
The militants have virtually declared a war on the Pakistani state. The TTP is not only active in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but has also extended its operations to the troubled Balochistan province. Meanwhile, the latest incident in Chitral has added to our security concerns.
We are now back to the pre-2016 situation, or even worse, with the resurgence of militant violence. The militants appear more organised and better equipped with sophisticated weaponry. Scores of Pakistani soldiers reportedly lost their lives in August, the bloodiest month, in clashes between the security forces and the militants, with targeted attacks in various parts of KP and Balochistan.
Such a high number of casualties is alarming. The situation is getting worse with reports of tacit support for the TTP from some Afghan Taliban commanders. A major concern for the Pakistani security forces is the militants acquiring modern weapons left behind by the Nato forces and the former Afghan army.
With the interim Afghan Taliban administration refusing to take action against TTP sanctuaries on its soil, security challenges for Pakistan have exacerbated. What is most alarming are reports of the Afghan Taliban also joining the TTP in some of the terrorist attacks inside Pakistan. There was strong evidence of their involvement in the raid on the security post in Zhob district of Balochistan earlier this year. It was among the most lethal attacks in recent years.
The impunity with which such attacks are being carried out against the security forces also raises questions about our own strategy to deal with the existentialist threat. Growing political and economic instability in the country also seems to have given impetus to the militants. The security forces now seem overstretched, with the expansion of militant operations along the long and porous border with Afghanistan.
Some reports quoting TTP sources maintain that the worsening sectarian tension in the nearby area of Gilgit-Baltistan has also been the reason behind the latest TTP incursion into Chitral. The militants are reportedly regrouping under the TTP banner in the area.
Indeed, the Chitral incident cannot be seen in isolation. Cross-border infiltration and clashes are not a new phenomenon in the region. The neighbouring Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan have long been known as the centre of Al Qaeda-backed, religiously inspired militancy. The area became a safe haven for Pakistani militants fleeing from military operations in this country. The return of Taliban rule in Afghanistan helped them reorganise.
There have been several incidents of cross-border clashes in the district in the past. But the Sept 6 raid was the most serious, with a large number of militants crossing over. A top TTP commander told The Khorasan Diary, a digital news platform, that several villages have fallen to the militants. The claim has not been verified. The area where the infiltration took place is believed to be more vulnerable because of its inhospitable terrain. The mountainous region is covered with snow for much of the year, making cross-border movement extremely difficult.
Given Chitral’s geostrategic location the rise of the militant threat there is a serious security concern for Pakistan. The region not only borders Afghanistan but also Tajikistan and China through the Wakhan Corridor. Because of its sensitivity, there is a large presence of Pakistani security forces in the region. But the tough terrain makes it harder to completely stop the infiltration. The latest cross-border attacks are a grim reminder of the growing TTP threat to national security.
Indeed, the return of Taliban rule across the border has been a major factor in the resurgence of militant violence in the country but the absence of a clear strategy has also helped the TTP regain some of its lost space. The policy of appeasement has come back to haunt us.
It was a serious mistake on the part of the state to engage in so-called peace negotiations with the outlawed group on the persuasion of the Afghan Taliban administration in 2021. The terms of engagement were set by the militants.
Though the peace talks went nowhere, the state allowed the return of thousands of armed militants. Pakistan also released several militant commanders involved in the killing of thousands of Pakistanis. The returnee militants revived their terror network and went on to challenge the state’s authority.
It is that policy of appeasement that the country is now paying for. Indeed, we must put pressure on the Afghan Taliban administration to take action against the militants operating from its soil, but more importantly, we have to set our own counterterrorism policy in order. There still seems to be some confusion over how to deal with the rising TTP threat. The Chitral incident is yet another wake-up call for our policymakers.