Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Pakistan Faces ‘Peace of Wolves’ as Regional Tensions Rise

After 20 years of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan finds the tables are turning as militancy comes home.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Residents of Quetta hold candle lights beside photographs of security personnel who were killed in militant attacks on security camps in the Nushki and Panjgur areas of Balochistan province.
Residents of Quetta hold candle lights beside photographs of security personnel who were killed in militant attacks on security camps in the Nushki and Panjgur areas of Balochistan province.
Residents hold candle lights beside photographs of security personnel who were killed in militant attacks on security camps in the Nushki and Panjgur areas of Balochistan province, in Quetta, Pakistan, on Feb. 7. BANARAS KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

ISLAMABAD—Complex, simultaneous attacks on two regional Pakistan Army headquarters in remote Balochistan have focused attention on the capacity and audacity of homegrown militant groups emboldened and even enabled by the victory of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

The assault on the paramilitary headquarters in Panjgur lasted three days, and the one in Nushki a day, and coincided with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Beijing for the Olympics opening ceremony and talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. A senior Pakistani official, speaking anonymously, said 22 attackers and 13 soldiers were killed in the Feb. 2-5 attacks, which were claimed by Baloch separatists. Sources in Pakistan—including officials and diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity—were alarmed by the sophistication and capability on display in the attacks. The Baloch Liberation Army had also claimed an attack a few weeks earlier.

The resurgence of domestic terrorism in Pakistan is a bitter, but not unexpected, harvest for Islamabad, which spent the last two decades supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, only to see the latter’s eventual success boomerang and undermine Pakistan’s own security.

ISLAMABAD—Complex, simultaneous attacks on two regional Pakistan Army headquarters in remote Balochistan have focused attention on the capacity and audacity of homegrown militant groups emboldened and even enabled by the victory of the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

The assault on the paramilitary headquarters in Panjgur lasted three days, and the one in Nushki a day, and coincided with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Beijing for the Olympics opening ceremony and talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. A senior Pakistani official, speaking anonymously, said 22 attackers and 13 soldiers were killed in the Feb. 2-5 attacks, which were claimed by Baloch separatists. Sources in Pakistan—including officials and diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity—were alarmed by the sophistication and capability on display in the attacks. The Baloch Liberation Army had also claimed an attack a few weeks earlier.

The resurgence of domestic terrorism in Pakistan is a bitter, but not unexpected, harvest for Islamabad, which spent the last two decades supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, only to see the latter’s eventual success boomerang and undermine Pakistan’s own security.

Pakistan now accuses the Taliban in Afghanistan of harboring militant groups that seek the overthrow of the Pakistani state. Militant attacks have increased alarmingly since May 2021, coinciding with the Afghan Taliban’s ultimately victorious offensive, according to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS). It noted the deadliest month for attacks in Pakistan was August, when the Afghan Taliban retook power in Kabul.

PICSS counted 294 attacks in Pakistan last year—a 56 percent rise over 2020—resulting in 395 deaths and more than 600 wounded. It said 104 of those attacks happened in Balochistan, with 103 in the restive tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Both share borders with Afghanistan; Balochistan also borders Iran.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has long had ties to the Afghan Taliban, was driven into Afghanistan’s eastern provinces from the North and South Waziristan tribal areas in Pakistan Army operations in 2014 and 2015. The United States Institute of Peace last year described the TTP as a “greatly diminished force but not a toothless one” and added that its “relationships with other militant groups—particularly the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISK [the Afghanistan chapter of the Islamic State]—have been critical in providing the group with material benefits, as well as legitimizing its ideology.”

And the fall of Afghanistan—once meant to provide Pakistan with “strategic depth”—has directly impacted Islamabad’s own security. The departure of U.S. and international forces and the collapse of the Afghan republic meant drone strikes and ground operations against the TTP in Afghanistan ceased in the middle of last year. The United Nations Security Council puts the number of TTP militants in Afghanistan at 3,000-5,000.

But Pakistan’s woes aren’t just due to the fall of the Afghan republic. Domestic militant threats are expected to intensify amid a toxic cocktail of economic deprivation, social marginalization, heavy-handed security, ethnic nationalism, and tribalism. Across the country, attacks are on the rise. Baloch and Pashtun nationalists are chafing against forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and tight media controls.

There’s also the perception that big Chinese investments, especially in Balochistan, under the guise of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor aren’t trickling down. The senior Pakistani official attributed the early February attacks in Balochistan to ire over China’s economic and financial stranglehold on Islamabad. “The aim was to downgrade the relationship with China,” the official said.

“In any other country, including my own, these attacks would be called civil war,” said a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Things are getting worse, but will it explode? No, and for no other reason than that the military is there.” The Pakistan Army is entrenching its control over the civilian administration, courts, media, and civil society, justifying its actions with traditional anti-India rhetoric as well as the uptick in homegrown terrorism.

Pakistan’s hopes that it could rely on Taliban pledges to ensure that it would not be the target of terrorist attacks from across the border have been disappointed. Disputes over the colonial-era Durand Line, recognized by Pakistan but not by successive Afghan governments, have also continued into the new Taliban era. Pakistan now accuses the Afghan Taliban of giving the TTP cover to launch attacks on Pakistan. Last week, Islamabad also used the U.N. Security Council to accuse India of supporting the TTP and its offshoot Jamaat-ul-Ahrar in Afghan territory.

“I believe that instead of finding strategic depth in Afghanistan, Pakistan has handed over a strategic depth in Pakistan to the Taliban,” said Mohsin Dawar, a lawmaker from North Waziristan.

“The dangerous thing in the Pakistani context is that the Pakistani generals have no motivation to fight militancy because there is no foreign aid. Until now, whatever they got was heavily funded by the United States. So, even if they wanted to do something, how do they do it? They don’t have money. The economy is collapsing,” said Dawar, who is chair of the Pashtun-nationalist National Democratic Movement.

Security experts said the Pakistani military has been trying to negotiate with the TTP and accommodate the group politically in order to defuse its potential for violence. Simbal Khan, a conflict and security advisor at the United Nations Development Program in Pakistan, said the military has fortified its presence both in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, allowing stronger links with local communities. Together, the two regions comprise half of Pakistan’s territory. Balochistan is the largest of Pakistan’s four states, with a population of just 12 million of the country’s total 220 million. It’s rich in natural resources, including oil, coal, copper, gold, and iron ore, and shares a 500-mile border with Iran.

“Each district center is being built now, setting up administrative centers, [with] more push for access to health, education, legal rights for women. Outreach is slow, but because of the roads and the [reach of] the government, it is slowly changing,” Khan said.

“With the infrastructure the military has on the ground both in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which they have been able to build over the last 10 years, they will be able to contain” the militant threat, she said.

Still, as Pakistan becomes increasingly militarized against internal foes, ignoring broader regional and global developments, a descent into civil war is possible, said Afrasiab Khattak, a former president of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Like many in Pakistan, including the prime minister, he believes a new cold war looms, pitting the West against China and Russia. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Khattak said, would ensure continued instability in Pakistan, which he believes is part of a broader U.S. plan for containing China.

Khattak said the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan would lead to gurg ashti, a phrase used in Urdu meaning the “peace of wolves”—uneasy, unpredictable, volatile—in the region, amid rising tensions between China, Russia, and Iran.

“Pakistan should have a policy towards Afghanistan, the way China has a policy towards Pakistan,” he said. “The present policy is very dangerous. It’s suicidal. They are not reaching out to ordinary non-Taliban Afghans. And the trouble I see coming is not national, it is not regional—it is international.”

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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