Pakistan appears poised to launch a major ground and air offensive against Tehreek-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants that could target hideouts in neighbouring Afghanistan, experts say, as a surge in attacks on security forces threaten to plunge the country back into a cycle of violence.
Dozens of Pakistani soldiers and policemen have been killed and wounded in recent months in near-daily armed assaults, assassinations, roadside bombings and suicide attacks by the TTP, or the Pakistani Taliban, in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, the two western provinces bordering Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s civil and military leadership issued a warning late on Monday that “the full force of the state” would “take on all and any entities that resort to violence”.
In a thinly veiled reference to Afghanistan’s Taliban regime – that is separate from the TTP but allied – Pakistan’s national security council warned that “no country will be allowed provide sanctuaries and facilitation to terrorists”.
“Pakistan reserves all rights … to safeguard her people,” said the statement by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s office.
Public pressure to abandon efforts to seek a negotiated settlement with the TTP has intensified after police on December 23 thwarted an apparent attempt to launch a suicide bomb attack on Islamabad, the first since 2015. A suspected militant detonated explosives while being chased by police, prompting embassies to warn their citizens to restrict their movements.
“Talks with the TTP have failed, the number of attacks and their geographic spread is rapidly increasing, and political pressure to do something is mounting,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Centre, a Washington-based think tank. “Something has got to give. Islamabad no longer has the luxury of simply sitting on its hands.”
Since the Taliban seized power in neighbouring Afghanistan, the number of deadly attacks inside Pakistan has tripled, according to data collated by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank.
Some 441 people were killed in 254 terrorist attacks during 2022, double the deaths recorded in 2020, it reported.
Analysts say the statement from Pakistan’s leadership is a clear indication that it is planning a major offensive, supported by an air campaign against TTP camps inside Afghanistan.
“There will be a large ground operation for sure. Intelligence-led strikes will be employed to drain the swamp,” said Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Any counterterrorism operation within Pakistan is likely to focus on four districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – North and South Waziristan, Dera Ismail Khan and Lakki Marwat – where the TTP re-established its networks under the cover of a Taliban-mediated ceasefire between May and July last year.
Basit said Pakistan will take this approach to avoid the blowback from displacing local populations, as occurred during operations against the TTP at the height of the insurgency between 2007 and 2015.
“Air strikes and the use of drones in cross border missions is a given. Some sorties inside the Afghanistan border region to soften terror hideouts before ground incursions are equally expected,” Basit told This Week In Asia. Pakistan estimates that 7,000 to 10,000 TTP militants – along with 25,000 of their family members – are based in Afghanistan.
Pakistan had hoped that Taliban’s takeover of power in Afghanistan would help secure its western borders.While it played a key role in helping the US dismantle al-Qaeda after the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Pakistan was frequently accused by the Western powers of providing safe havens and logistical support to the Taliban during the 20-year US-led occupation of Afghanistan which ended in August 2021.
However, the Taliban regime has resisted pressure to force the TTP to surrender, a position experts say reflects its closeness to the Pakistani group, a virtual offshoot.
Spiking tensions between Islamabad and Kabul have sparked lethal exchanges of gun and mortar fire between Pakistani and Taliban forces, leading to the temporary closure of border crossings.
The Taliban’s defence ministry on Sunday denied the TTP was operating from Afghan territory, adding Taliban forces stood “ready to defend its territorial integrity and independence”.
Pakistan has already secured assurances of US support for its counterterrorism operations against the TTP.
At a December 19 press briefing, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the US would help Pakistan to address the “increasingly dangerous threat” posed by Afghanistan- based terrorist groups like the TTP.
“We have partnered with our Pakistani friends to help them take on this challenge. We stand ready to assist, whether with this unfolding situation or more broadly,” Price said.
As part of the US budget for 2023, Congress has approved tens of millions of dollars of funding to help Pakistan “with border security”, foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari told the Karachi-based Dawn newspaper on December 24.
The funds would be the first released since the US suspended security aid to Pakistan in 2018 after then-president Donald Trump accused Islamabad of duplicity.
“A move could well be coming – we can’t rule out that possibility – but at this point at least it doesn’t appear to be official US policy,” said Kugelman of the Wilson Centre.
Analysts say US support could involve the Pentagon and the CIA providing Pakistan’s military with intelligence gathered by satellites and drones – such as the real-time movements of TTP militants on either side of the border with Afghanistan.
The US could also carry out drone strikes targeting leadership figures of the TTP and allied groups like al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, who have been declared terrorists by the State Department.
But the scope of US support would be driven by its willingness to unfreeze security aid; the reach of Pakistan’s operation – particularly if it extends into Afghanistan – and the amount of help that Islamabad may receive from other partners, “especially China”, Kugelman added.
“The short of it is that we shouldn’t overstate the potential US help for a Pakistani counterterrorism offensive.”