Islamabad must prepare for a potential boost to cross-border extremism after the U.S. completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan
With the U.S. on track to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, there is renewed concern of the Afghan Taliban and their battlefield allies—Al Qaeda, Islamic State and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)—setting their sights on Pakistan from across the wire-fenced Durand Line. Other defunct jihadi organizations, such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Sipah-e-Sahaba, might also get a second life and join the invasion.
The Long War Journal, on May 19, 2021, reported on the Afghan Taliban’s preparations for the U.S. withdrawal: “The groundwork for the Taliban’s efforts to reestablish its Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan by force of arms has been laid over the past several years with its successful effort to gain control of rural districts that surround provincial capitals. Now, the Taliban is preparing for large-scale offensives against provincial centers.
“This quarter, the Taliban’s military strategy very likely focuses on preparation for large-scale offensives against provincial centers, complex attacks against ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] and National Directorate for Security (NDS) installations, and degrading ANDSF capabilities.
“Five provincial capitals, Pul-I-Khumri (Baghlan) and Kunduz City in the north, as well as Kandahar City, Lashkar Gah (Helmand), and Tarin Kot (Uruzgan) in the south, have been surrounded and the Taliban has conducted attacks against military and intelligence targets as of February 2021.
“These cities, and 12 others, remain under direct Taliban threat. The Taliban has followed a classic guerrilla strategy of gaining control of or contesting areas outside of urban centers in order to prepare for the next phase: taking control of the cities. In each of these cities, the Taliban has either directly invaded and briefly seized control of the city centers (Kunduz, Farah, and Ghazni), controls neighborhoods within the cities, taxes citizens and imposes its harsh brand of Islamic law, or frequently attacks security outposts in and around the city.”
The banned Afghanistan-based TTP has already asserted itself in Balochistan by attacking a hotel in Quetta earlier this year. It likely looks forward to tying up with other jihadi groups to challenge Pakistan in future. The TTP has proved its ability to assert itself within Pakistan in the past and can do it again once the Americans leave and cause Pakistan to feel isolated in the midst of a “sympathetic” pro-Taliban religious upheaval.
Severance of Swat
A look at the fairly recent past highlights why this threat factor needs special attention. In April 2009, Taliban forces took over Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The militants blew up scores of girls’ schools, declaring female education un-Islamic, and executed hundreds of security and government officials. In a humiliating concession to the extremists’ growing influence, the government had in February signed a peace agreement with Mullah Fazlullah, the head of the Swat insurgency.
The government had acceded to all of the TTP’s demands, including the establishment of Islamic courts to be headed by clerics. The area became a Taliban sanctuary and the military effort to crush the insurgents came to an end despite a year spent fighting. Shortly thereafter militants in their thousands poured into Swat and set up training camps, converting the valley into another base for Taliban fighters. By March 2009, the number of militant fighters in the Valley was believed to be between 6,000 and 8,000, nearly double the number at the end of 2008. By late April, they had advanced to within 60 miles of the capital city of Islamabad.
Confronting the harrowing prospect of the Taliban moving on Islamabad, the Pakistani military finally took a decision to strike back in May 2009. In retaliation, in October 2009, the militants launched a most audacious attack on GHQ, the Pakistan Army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi. More than a dozen gunmen stormed the large compound adjacent to Islamabad despite the strengthening of several security checkpoints in and around the GHQ after the surge in attacks targeting military personnel and installations.
Disguised in Army uniforms, the militants still managed to break through the extensive security cordon and take dozens of Army officers and soldiers hostage. They accused the Pakistani military “of fighting America’s war and killing its own people.” The assault was defeated but only after four militants, two commandos, and three hostages (two civilians and one soldier) had been killed.
Murder at the Marriot
One of the most shocking attacks of the decade following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on Dec. 20, 2008. A dump truck filled with explosives was detonated in front of the hotel despite its location in a high security zone. The massive suicide bombing killed at least 54 people, including several foreign nationals, injured at least 266, and left a 60-foot wide, 20-foot deep crater. It was one of the worst terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s history. The apparent target were U.S. military personnel who were reportedly staying there.
A month earlier, a devastating suicide car bombing had taken place on the regional office of the ISI in Lahore, leaving dozens of operatives dead and wounded. Peshawar, a gateway to the tribal region, was likewise bombed on a near-daily basis. Schools were closed because of the fear of suicide bombings, and hundreds of civilians died as the attacks continued.
In 2009, four gunmen stormed a packed mosque on Parade Lane near GHQ, spraying gunfire and throwing hand grenades. Most of the 200 worshippers gathered for Friday prayers were serving or retired Army officers and their children. As the worshippers ran for cover, the gunmen singled out some for execution. In all 36 people, including 17 children, an Army major-general, and a brigadier-general, were killed. The strain showed among Pakistan Army personnel as they buried their fellow-officers and their children.
Ideological lure of TLP
In 2021, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) enjoyed the same kind of immunity from state retribution that the Taliban had a decade earlier as it attacked police in major cities across Pakistan. It saw the state succumb to its street power by offering concessions recalling the concessions made to the TTP in 2008. Some questioned Prime Minister Imran Khan’s credibility in pledging in his address to the nation not to give in to the demands of any banned organization.
The TLP protests brought out the state’s reflex of surrender. Journalist Zahid Hussain wrote: “The state seemed to have disappeared as the followers of a radical wheelchair-riding cleric blocked highways and train tracks connecting the country’s main cities. The ‘non-jihadi’ TLP succeeded in bringing the administration to its knees.”
That Pakistan is vulnerable to the extreme religious conduct of the Taliban has been proved in the past. The TLP phenomenon actually confirmed this reflex of the state to give ground. This trait of the state reminds us that the wire-fenced Durand Line will not secure Pakistan against the “forward” policy of the coming Taliban government in Kabul towards Pakistan after the American withdrawal. The Quetta attack on the Serena Hotel in April 2021 has already proven this point.