Pakistan: Buying An Improbable Peace In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – Analysis

On January 7, 2022, two terrorists were killed during an intelligence-based operation (IBO) on Amirwanda Road within Lakki Police Station of Bannu District.

On January 5, 2022, two soldiers were killed during an IBO in Kot Kili village in the South Waziristan District. The operation was carried out by Security Forces (SFs) following reports of terrorist presence in the area.

On the same day, two terrorists were killed and three were arrested during another IBO carried out by SFs in the Tank area of Dera Ismail Khan District. One militant surrendered to the SFs. A cache of ammunition, including Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and rockets, was recovered from the encounter site.

On January 1, 2022, unidentified assailants killed a Police official near a fruit and vegetable market under Mandan Police Station limits in Bannu town (Bannu District).

According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), three SF personnel and four terrorists have been killed in the current year, thus far (data till January 9, 2022). No civilian killing has yet been recorded in the current year. During the corresponding period of 2021, the province recorded just one fatality (a trooper).

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recorded a total of 303 fatalities (71 civilians, 108 SF personnel and 124 terrorists) in 130 incidents of killing in 2021, as against 216 such fatalities (61 civilians, 57 SF personnel, and 98 terrorists) in 78 such incidents in 2020, registering an increase of 40.27 per cent in overall fatalities. There were 130 fatalities in 2019. Clearly, overall violence increased sharply over 2019 – 2021.

More worryingly, SF fatalities almost doubled from 57 in 2020 to 108 in 2021. SF fatalities recorded in the province in 2021 are the highest in a year since 2015, when there were 81 such fatalities. Though terrorist fatalities also increased in 2021, from 98 in 2020 to 124, the SF:Terrorist kill ratio dropped from 1:1.71 to 1:1.14.

Not surprisingly, civilian fatalities increased from 61 in 2020 to 71 in 2021. There were 30 fatalities in this category in 2019.

Other parameters of violence also indicate a worsening security situation in the province. Total terrorism-linked incidents jumped sharply from 99 to 169.

The number of major incidents (each involving three or more killings) increased from 28 in 2020 to 42 in 2021. The resultant fatalities in such attacks also increased from 145 in 2020 to 189 in 2021. Similarly, KP accounted for an increased number of explosions, from 25 in 2020 to 32 in 2021, and the resulting fatalities increased from 45 to 52.

The province witnessed two suicide attacks in 2021 as against one in 2020. The suicide attacks included:

July 14: A vehicle driven by a suicide bomber and laden with explosives rammed a convoy of Chinese workers headed to the Dasu Hydropower Plant project site at Dasu in the Upper Kohistan District of KP, killing at least 13 persons, including nine Chinese, one Pakistani civilian and two Frontier Corps (FC) personnel. Two buses carrying workers from the China Gezhouba Group Co., a construction company based in Wuhan, China, were badly damaged in the explosion. Though, there was no claim of responsibility for the attack, the KP Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) claimed, on December 30, that the bombers belonged to the Islamic State.

December 19: Two people were killed while another four were injured in a suicide attack on an Awami National Party (ANP) vehicle near the Pakistan-Afghan border in the Sur Qamar area within Laghrey Police Station limits in Bajaur District. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.

Out of 35 Districts of KP, 21 recorded terrorism-related violence, according to SATP. The most violent District in 2021 was North Waziristan, which accounted for 106 deaths, followed by South Waziristan (51 fatalities), Peshawar (25 fatalities) and Bajaur (22 fatalities). In 2020 as well, North Waziristan recorded the maximum of 110 killings, followed by Peshawar (27) and South Waziristan (21). Out of 35 Districts, 19 Districts registered terrorism-related incidents in 2020. Similarly, 2019 also saw terrorism-related incidents in 19 Districts, out of which North Waziristan had the highest number of fatalities (50), followed by Dera Ismail Khan (30), Peshawar (9) and Upper Dir (6).

Clearly, North Waziristan remains the epicentre of violence in the province. This is not surprising, as Pakistan had deliberately delayed operations in North Waziristan for long, as the region provided shelter to its own Afghan terrorist proxy, the Haqqani Network. The Haqqani Network has been persistently accused by the United States of attacking allied and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan had, however, resisted American pressure to go in for an all-out operation in the province in order to ensure that the Haqqani Network’s safe haven was not disrupted. However, after the Jinnah International Airport attack on June 8, 2014, Pakistan lunched Operation Zarb-e-Azb (Sword of the Prophet) on June 15, 2014, against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorists, after extracting Haqqani cadres from the region. But this long delay had also been utilised by the TTP to remove its own cadres and leaders. Both TTP and Haqqani cadres reportedly took shelter in adjoining areas of Afghanistan. With the Taliban gaining ascendency in the Afghan War, a conducive environment for the TTP to regain its strength was established. Moreover, unification of a strengthened TTP commenced.

On August 17, 2020, TTP confirmed that the breakaway Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) and Hizb-ul-Ahrar (HuA) had re-joined the group. JuA ‘chief’ Omar Khalid Khurasani and HuA ‘chief’ Omar Khurasani pledged allegiance to TTP ‘chief’ Noor Wali Mehsud, the TTP statement indicated. JuA had parted ways with TTP in 2014, after developing differences with the then leader of the group, Mullah Fazlullah. It had even condemned the TTP’s December 16, 2014, Army Public School attack, which resulted in the death of 148 persons, including 135 children. HuA was formed later, after JuA split into two groups. Earlier, after the death of TTP-Hakimullah Mehsud (TTP-HK) ‘chief’ Shehryar Mehsud on February 12, 2020, TTP-HK, under its ‘commander’ Mukhlis Yaar Mehsud, re-joined the parent outfit in July 2020. A regrouped, resurgent TTP has become a major challenge for the security establishment.

Simultaneously, TTP started making deep inroads in KP. With the Taliban-Haqqani Network combine at the helm of power in Afghanistan, North Waziristan and surrounding areas of KP were the most likely to witness a steep surge in violence.

Indeed, since August 15, 2021, when the Afghan Taliban gained control in Afghanistan, the lethality of attacks on SFs in Pakistan’s tribal belt has spiked. From August 15, 2021, to January 7, 2022, there 34 attacks were executed against SFs killing 56 personnel. During the corresponding period preceding, 33 SF personnel had been killed in 32 attacks.

On September 22, 2021, the Awami National Party (ANP), which was in Government during the KP’s troubled years (2008-2013), warned that a new wave of terrorism was emerging, and that it would engulf the entire country if not controlled at the present stage. “The terrorists are regrouping in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” ANP provincial president Aimal Wali Khan declared. He asked the Government to contain the spread of extremism and terrorism, and added that a failure to take concrete steps would send the message that the Government or state institutions were party to the violence.

There is no doubt that TTP and the Afghan Taliban are ideological twins. Indeed, during an interview with on July 26, 2021, TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud asserted that his group had a ‘good relationship’ with the Afghan Taliban and hoped to benefit from the latter’s victories across the border. He further warned that TTP would continue its “war against Pakistan’s security forces” and declared that the outfit’s goal was to “take control of the border regions and make them independent.” This is the first time that TTP’s leadership has called for an independent state in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

However, instead of taking strong actions against TTP, despite the fact that the group had stepped up attacks in the province, the Pakistan Government, is trying to negotiate with the outfit with the help of the Taliban. As a result, both sides agreed on a month-long ceasefire between November 9 and December 9.

On December 9, however, TTP declined to extend the ceasefire with the Government, alleging that the state forces had not only failed to implement the decisions reached between the two sides but, on the contrary, had conducted raids in Dera Ismail Khan, Lakki Marwat, Swat, Bajaur, Swabi and North Waziristan, killing and detaining many fighters. TTP consequently declared, “Under these circumstances, it is not possible to extend the ceasefire.” Mufti Noor Wali Mahsud announced an end to the ceasefire and asked his fighters to resume attacks.

During the month-long ceasefire, though five SF personnel were killed in three terrorism-related incidents, no TTP terrorist had been killed, according to data available in open sources. Indeed, during the ceasefire, the Government reportedly released more than 100 TTP prisoners as a “goodwill gesture,” to reciprocate the group’s acceptance of the ceasefire.

While Islamabad is evidently trying to buy peace with TTP in KP in particular, and across the country at large, with the help of the Afghan Taliban the possibilities of success remain limited.

Moreover, the threat from the Islamic State (IS) is increasing. While no IS-linked fatality was reported in 2020, two IS-linked attacks were reported in 2021. Apart from the July 14, 2021, suicide attack, on October 1, 2021, IS claimed responsibility for killing a Sikh physician, Satnam Singh (45), in the Charsadda Road area of Peshawar on September 30. The IS statement described Satnam Singh as a “polytheist” and declared that he was shot dead by its cadres because of this. On December 20, 2021, three IS terrorists, including a senior ‘commander’, were killed during an intelligence-based operation in the Malik Saad Shaheed area under the Faqirabad Police Station of Peshawar. Three Kalashnikovs, pistols and explosives were recovered from the slain terrorists.

Efforts to buy peace with TTP continue, but terrorist violence in KP is surging again, as these overtures are seen as a sign of weakness by a resurgent TTP, operating with the implicit support of the Afghan Taliban. These developments may have a cascading effect on KP, as well as on the rest of Pakistan.