Terrorism in Pakistan has declined, but the underlying roots of extremism remain

Policemen stand guard beside razor wire outside Gaddafi stadium before the second Twenty20 Cricket match between Pakistan and Zimbabwe in Lahore, Pakistan, May 24, 2015. Zimbabwe is the first test-playing nation to tour Pakistan since a 2009 terror attack on the Sri Lanka team bus in Lahore left the driver dead and several players injured. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza
Editor's note:

This piece is part of a series titled “Nonstate armed actors and illicit economies: What the Biden administration needs to know,” from Brookings’s Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Pakistan saw 319 terrorism-related incidents in 2020, and 169 associated deaths of civilians. That represents a decline, from a high of nearly 4,000 such incidents in 2013, with over 2,700 civilian deaths (see figure below).

This fall is largely due to the Pakistani army’s kinetic operations against the Pakistani Taliban — also known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — which had been responsible for the majority of deaths of civilians and security forces since 2007, the year it formed officially as an umbrella organization of various militant groups. Over the years, American drone strikes targeted and killed successive TTP leaders, including Baitullah Mehsud in 2009, Hakimullah Mehsud in 2013, and Mullah Fazlullah in 2018. The Pakistani military’s Zarb-e-Azb operation (named for the sword of the Prophet Muhammad) began in 2014 — after a TTP attack on the Karachi airport that June — and increased in intensity after the Peshawar Army Public School attack of December that year, which killed more than 130 schoolchildren. Since 2017, having largely routed the TTP (because of limited information access to the area, there are questions about how many terrorists were killed, versus simply displaced across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border), the military’s operation entered a new phase of “elimination” of militant groups. The operation is called Radd-ul-Fasaad, which literally means elimination of all strife.

Figure: Terrorism-related fatalities in Pakistan

Terrorism-related fatalities in Pakistan

While this top-line picture in terms of number of attacks and casualties is clearly a positive one, the TTP has been regrouping since last summer. Various breakaway factions pledged allegiance to the group last July, and there are reports of it making a comeback in at least six districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa “with the intimidation of locals, targeted killings, and attacks on security forces.” The TTP is reported to have killed at least 40 security forces between March and September 2020. Official Pakistani sources blamed India as “behind” the revival. On the other end, the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, an ethnic protest movement that claims human rights violations against civilians by the Pakistani military during its operations against the Taliban, has alleged (without systematic proof) that “the Taliban are being allowed to return” to the tribal areas in a “secret deal with the military.”

The TTP, of course, maintains ties with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida. Some have speculated that the TTP comeback may be linked with the Afghan peace process and Pakistan’s fencing of the border with Afghanistan, both of which threaten the group’s sanctuary in Afghanistan. (A U.N. report from July 2020 stated there were 6,000 Pakistani fighters in Afghanistan, most affiliated with the TTP.) There has also been some speculation that the Afghan peace process might include, at some point, a separate Afghan-Pakistan deal, with Afghanistan denying safe haven to the TTP potentially in return for Pakistan denying sanctuary to the Haqqanis (though it is unclear whether that will be possible, or acceptable to Pakistan). Pakistan has already raised questions about Afghanistan’s sanctuary for the TTP.

The Islamic State in Khorasan (ISIS-K), which operates in Afghanistan and is the Afghan Taliban’s rival, has been responsible for recent attacks in Baluchistan, including of 11 Shia Hazara coal miners this January — complicating Pakistan’s already violent sectarian landscape. In discussing this attack, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan again blamed India for “backing ISIS” to “spread unrest” in Pakistan. (Pakistan has also long claimed that India uses Afghan soil — on which ISIS-K is based — to destabilize Pakistan.)

Anti-India militant groups continue to have a foothold in Pakistan, but Pakistan has begun taking action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in recent years, especially in the wake of its enhanced monitoring by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in 2018 for terrorism financing; it is a key goal of Khan’s government to have Pakistan removed from this “grey list,” because it hurts the country’s image and causes it financial harm. Most notably, Pakistan has sentenced Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the LeT, to 11 years in prison for terrorism financing. Another LeT leader, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, was also recently sentenced to five years for terrorism financing. The United States has acknowledged these steps, but has argued that Pakistan needs to hold these LeT leaders accountable for more than terrorism financing. Pakistan has taken less action against Jaish-e-Mohammad, the terrorist group responsible for the Pulwama attack of February 2019; its leader, Masood Azhar, is at large. Notably, Pakistan-based militant groups have not been responsible for any violence in Kashmir since the Pulwama attack; in an interview later in 2019, Khan asked Pakistanis not to engage in any violence or “jihad” in India, because it would be blamed on Pakistan and would harm it. That signal seems to have worked.

Placing the blame on India for terrorism in Pakistan is something the country has long done, although not always in as direct a manner as in 2020. Beyond linking the recent ISIS-K attack with India, Pakistan also linked the Baluch Liberation Army’s June 2020 attack on the Karachi Stock Exchange with its eastern neighbor (Pakistan has longed argued India supports the Baluch insurgency). In November, the Pakistani foreign minister, in a splashy press conference, released details of the “dossier” Pakistan has compiled linking India to funding, arming, and training terrorists (including the TTP) against Pakistan. Only the summary — not the full dossier — discussed in that meeting has been made public. It found a receptive audience in a Pakistani population already wary of the Narendra Modi government for its actions in Kashmir and the alarming rise in intolerance toward Muslims in India. The Pakistani government says it has shared the dossier with the U.N. and various governments, but those parties have not publicly acknowledged it.

Pakistan’s strategy toward militant groups has long been two-pronged, as it were: to take overt (and successful) action against groups targeting the Pakistani state and citizenry — the TTP — without taking action against the groups it has considered “strategic assets,” including the Afghan Taliban that have sought sanctuary on its soil and anti-India militants that its intelligence agencies have covertly supported. Underlying this approach has been an effort to hedge bets: regarding the Taliban’s possible influence in Afghanistan after an international withdrawal, and regarding militant proxies who may give Pakistan parity on an otherwise lopsided conventional military footing with India. There are signs some of this is changing. For instance, Pakistan has developed a good relationship with Kabul, especially in recent months, but it also knows its leverage over the Taliban keeps it relevant to the Afghan peace process. The FATF listing has induced Pakistan to take its strictest action to date on militant groups, especially LeT. It also helps that Pakistan is keen to shed an image associated with terrorism. Yet the long-term sustainability of actions Pakistan has taken in response to pressure from FATF remains to be seen; will they be reversed when the FATF grey-listing is lifted? And what happens after the international withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete?

The central issue is not one of state capacity, but an unwillingness of the Pakistani state to paint all jihadist groups with the same brush, to recognize the linkages in ideology that connect them all — and to acknowledge how those ideologies find fodder in Pakistan’s laws, educational curricula, politics, and indeed the very nature of how Pakistan has defined itself, as I detailed in my book. This issue holds for Pakistan’s military, and also across its spectrum of major political parties, as has been demonstrated over the last 12 years with all three of them successively holding power. That lack of recognition of how terrorism and extremism are connected, and of the very roots of extremism, is the crux of the problem: Militant groups can always find recruits, from other groups or from the general population. Non-armed right-wing fundamentalist groups, notably the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), share these ideologies, glorify violence (the TLP, after all, celebrated the murder of Salmaan Taseer for daring to propose reform in Pakistan’s blasphemy laws), and enjoy growing support and sympathy.

For a brief time after the Peshawar school attack of 2014, there was some clarity in recognizing the homegrown nature of the Pakistan Taliban, and the country devised a National Action Plan to tackle extremism and terrorism. While it was incomplete and never acknowledged the deeper roots of extremism, it was a start. But it has gone by the wayside as the Pakistani state has turned back once again to blaming India for terrorism in the country. Meanwhile, the underlying roots of extremism — the country’s curricula, the way its politics works, and its laws, which have all primed its citizenry to buy into and sympathize with the propaganda of extremist groups — remain intact. Pakistan’s claims about India deserve to be heard and investigated, as the international community ignoring them only worsens Pakistan’s sense of victimhood, but that does not absolve the state of its own policies that have fostered extremism and allowed terror groups to proliferate on its soil.

As the Biden administration takes office, it is worth recognizing the effectiveness of the FATF tool, and the limited leverage of the United States to effect real change on security matters in Pakistan, at least initially. Ultimately, Pakistan must be the one to connect the dots linking all the terrorist groups on its soil and their ideologies, acknowledge how it has contributed to extremism within its borders, and decide on addressing the roots of that extremism. I would argue that the best way to encourage it to do so is for America to develop a relationship with the country that is separate from Afghanistan, and separate from India: to deal with Pakistan on its own terms. Meanwhile, security concerns in Pakistan are more or less contained, with the FATF listing and the Pakistani state’s action against the TTP being the primary mechanisms for that control, and the Biden administration need not make them the center of its Pakistan policy.