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Pakistan’s Evolving Militant Landscape: State Responses and Policy Options

Pak Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) launched its research report ‘Pakistan’s Evolving Militant Landscape: State Responses and Policy Options’ on May 16, 2024, in Islamabad.

Academics, former diplomats, journalists, policy analysts, experts on Afghan affairs, and representatives of civil society, among others, attended the event. PIPS President Muhammad Amir Rana moderated the session that provided every discussant an opportunity to give their feedback over the research followed by a question answer session.

The study provides an updated assessment of militant and security landscapes of Pakistan’s different regions, considering the influences of both domestic factors and the situation in Afghanistan. It precisely examines state responses besides presenting viable policy options for fostering stability and peace in the country.

The research comprises interviews and focus group discussions, conducted over the course of one year. The interviews also included extensive interactions with a total of 28 senior Pakistani officials from the counterterrorism departments (CTDs) across all four provinces and the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) in Islamabad, among others.

Speakers at the discussion urged Pakistan to understand the nature of relationship of Taliban-led administration in Kabul with all Afghanistan-based militant groups before talking to it on the issue of banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

They said that Pakistan’s better know-how of emerging trends in Afghanistan and its militant landscape could help the former in resolving its own problem of terrorism effectively.

Former foreign secretary Inam-ul-Haque speaking on the occasion as a chief guest said Pakistan should learn to treat Afghanistan as an independent country. “Perhaps, resentment within Afghan ranks increased because they thought that Pakistanis were trying to dictate to them how they should behave,” he said.

Inam underlined that a certain view was wrong that Pakistan should have hegemony over Afghanistan. Pakistan helped the Taliban for its own interests because “we had been trying to protect ourselves, our objectives and our own society, not necessarily the Taliban,” he added.

The ex-foreign secretary said they should be quite clear that the view of the military establishment finally took the final shape of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. “This doesn’t only happen in Pakistan but all over the world…In US, the Pentagon makes the Afghan policy,” he said. It is obvious that policy-making is taken over by those, for certain areas, who are carrying out kinetic operations there, he added.

Senior journalist Zia Ur Rehman viewed that Pakistan as a state had poor understanding of emerging trends in Afghanistan and its militant landscape – a situation that is playing a major role in the former’s ongoing conflict. “We will have to understand the priorities of the Taliban leadership before engaging them to get our terrorism problem resolved,” he said.

Zia said Islamabad would have to understand the nature of ties of the Taliban regime with all Afghanistan-based militant groups including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the TTP. He said the Taliban viewed that these strong groups could join its rival Daesh if they took action against them on the desire of Pakistan and China, creating a new turmoil for the state of Afghanistan.

Chairperson of the Defence and Strategic Studies Department at the Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) Dr Shabana Fayyaz questioned why Pakistan couldn’t have an “innovative, complex and sustainable” strategy on counterterrorism (CT) when it had a multifaceted militant landscape? She said that female radicalization was a big problem of Pakistan and talked about female seminaries operating in the country urging the need to engage them for deradicalization.

QAU’s Associate Professor Dr Salma Malik said it was a major trend that Pakistan assessed its threat perception or primary threat of militancy through the lens of Afghanistan and the Taliban. “Is there any effort by the western border or India to impact our eastern militancy landscape?” she questioned. She urged the government to ensure rule of law and governance to become a “credible actor in the eyes of the Taliban.”

Senior journalist and expert on Afghan affairs Tahir Khan said that no one knew who was calling the shots in Pakistan as far as its Afghan policy was concerned. “Secondly, we don’t care for the sensitivities of the neighbouring country,” he said and talked about Pakistan’s “abrupt” decision to repatriate illegal Afghan refugees.

The Taliban believe that Pakistan expelled Afghan refugees to put pressure on them to take action against the proscribed TTP, Tahir added

International Research Council for Religious Affairs (IRCRA) President Muhammad Israr Madani said Pakistan neither had capacity to handle TTP militants nor any deradicalization programme to bring them into the mainstream. “Negotiations with the (banned) TTP is the only way forward,” he said, adding that engaging local communities on both sides of the border for CT operations and negotiations would be very helpful for the government.

Pakistan Council on China Director Dr Fazalur Rahman stressed the need for “a comprehensive, an interconnected and wholesome approach” to tackle the problem of extremism and terrorism in Pakistan. He said that the biggest flaw in the country’s CT strategy was prevailing mistrust among different law enforcement and intelligence agencies as they didn’t share data with one another.

Dr Fazal feared socio-economic factors were also contributing towards increasing incidents of terrorism, adding that the issue has had links with the geo-political environment.

IRCRA (International Research Council for Religious Affairs) Religious Engagement Director Tahmeed Jan said Afghanistan was diverse with people living there having different behaviours, beliefs and viewpoints. “There is a Pashtun and non-Pashtun divide in areas like Balkh and Mazar-e-Sharif,” he said, adding that the Taliban wanted to promote their own Pashtun language and culture in these areas.

Jan went on to say that the Taliban leadership living in Kandahar – the powerbase of the Taliban – had their own specific point of view and they didn’t care for any discipline, any institution and any international law or pressure. Those Taliban at the helm of affairs in Kabul use diplomatic language and talk about resolving problems but their second or third tier leadership think otherwise, he added. “Any person after visiting only Kabul, only Kandahar or only meeting with the top Taliban leadership cannot present a point of view of Afghanistan because there is diversity of thoughts among their ranks,” he said.

Tahmeed told participants that in the same manner, different people in Afghanistan had different perspectives about Pakistan, some took it as their friend and others as their biggest enemy more than the US. “Despite all this, the supreme opinion or response comes from Kandahar, which needs to be looked into carefully,” he emphasized. Giving an example, he said more than 90 percent of the Taliban were in favour of giving girls their right to education, empowering women and respecting human rights but a selected group in Kandahar was opposed to this thinking.

The IRCRA religious engagement director said Pakistan’s state was misunderstood about Afghanistan.  He said it was necessary for Islamabad to understand the mood and language of Kandahar before talking to the Taliban leadership. “Unfortunately, Pakistan’s response is altogether opposite to the Taliban’s thinking,” he underlined.

Author and researcher Sajjad Azhar said there was a missing link between think-tanks and state institutions of the country. He urged that better linkages among them would help in strong policy formulation as the institutions could benefit from such reports like the one in hand.

Sajjad said new factors, including Balochistan and Chinese projects, have emerged in the militant landscape of Pakistan. He added that extremists were targeting those Chinese working in the country. “Challenges have become diverse and manifold but the response of the state institutions dealing with militancy is becoming weak,” he added.

PIPS President Rana in his welcome remarks said that the institute had been working on the report and the whole initiative – including quarterly consultations, media monitoring and field research – for the last three years.

At the outset, PIPS Research Analyst Safdar Sial unveiled the key findings of the study. Quoting a 2023 report by the UNSC, it says that the Taliban-led Afghanistan remains the primary source of terrorist threat for Central and South Asia.

Most resource persons interviewed for the research appeared unconvinced that the Taliban will or could fulfil their promises on all foreign militant groups, which not only continue to be present on Afghan soil but have become more active since the Taliban takeover.

Giving policy options, the report recommends that there is a need for a multi-dimensional and all-inclusive approach to address the complexities of Pakistan’s extremism challenge. It warns that merely relying on military force overlooks the underlying factors driving extremism. “While kinetic approaches may eliminate existing terrorists, without addressing the ideological roots, new militants will emerge.”

The study suggests that soft measures are essential in any counterterrorism framework, particularly in Pakistan, where religious extremism is widespread alongside terrorism.