Afghanistan’s security situation has dramatically changed in the last few weeks. According to General Mark Milley (US Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff), the Taliban are in control over the majority of Afghanistan’s district centers and threatening to increase control, as U.S. forces continue to withdraw. He further added that the Taliban were in the process of gaining control over Afghanistan through strategic momentum. On 22nd July 2021, Tehrik-e-Taliban Afghanistan (TTA) spokesperson claimed: “Afghanistan’s borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, or about 90 percent of the border, are under our control.” The Taliban control of Afghanistan will have its own dynamics and Pakistan waits to see whether they will be able to improve the cross-border attacks by non-state actors in the future.
Given a concerted campaign lasting many years, Pakistan has been able to achieve a decline in terrorist attacks. A combination of fencing the Afghan border and sustained operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan had ebbed the power of the terror-generating groups that have recently seen a resurgence. This short paper will analyze if this is related to the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and if so what the projections look like. United Nations Security Council report on Afghanistan indicates the presence of approximately 6500 Pakistani terrorists in Afghanistan belonging to TTP. They are operating from the provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, Paktika, Gardaiz, Nangarhar and Paktia in Afghanistan. This report further highlights the movement of ISIL–K fighters to Orakzai Agency, Pakistan in 2020. These two groups could be the same or then as is often the case, fighters change their brands frequently and also use different names to confuse estimates.
Pakistan has often provided evidence of the involvement of the Indian government in the sponsorship of these groups in neighboring Afghanistan. The closure of Indian consulates along the Pak-Afghan border and thus, the lack of safe sanctuaries for TTP and Baloch militant organizations in Afghanistan indicate a shifting of terror groups to new areas that they consider safe. Tribal areas and Ferrari camps in the mountains of Balochistan are likely to become new safe sanctuaries for these terrorists returning from Afghanistan. This may enable a more focused targeting of these groups, though in short term there is a likelihood that there will be a rise in anti-government militant activity.
The impact of the volatile security situation in Afghanistan is already visible in Pakistan with an uptick in terrorist activities and there is a growing fear that Pakistan may have another wave of terrorist activities in the coming weeks. Pakistan is expecting an influx of refugees from Afghanistan and this may also facilitate terrorist movement. The silver lining is that for now there is little tolerance by the Afghan Taliban for terror groups being residents in the areas under their control.
Pakistan’s Terrorist Organizations Operating from Afghanistan
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)
TTP has conducted the highest number of suicide attacks in Pakistan and claimed responsibility for most terror incidents. After years of military operations against TTP, it shifted to Afghanistan and started operating from provinces in Afghanistan to launch cross-border attacks inside Pakistan. TTP activities are financed through extortion, kidnapping for ransom, and financial aid from hostile intelligence agencies. After years of factionalism and infighting, TTP underwent reorganization and reunification, under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud.
Baloch Terrorist Organizations
The major Baloch terrorist organizations, Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), Balochistan Republican Army (BRA), Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), United Baloch Army (UBA), and Lashkar-e-Baluchistan; all have/had safe sanctuaries in Afghanistan and the leadership claimed responsibilities for terrorist attacks from Afghanistan. Since the capture of Spin Boldak by the Taliban and its border crossing point, Baloch terrorist organizations are now deprived of safe sanctuaries provided by the Afghan intelligence agency, National Directorate of Security (NDS).
Pakistan has over the years gathered sufficient evidence that there is overt support for terror groups operating out of Afghanistan from both Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies. It is also thought by Pakistan’s policymakers that there is collusion in this by other power brokers as and when suitable to their interests.
Anticipated Security Situation of Pakistan
The security situation in Pakistan is complex and critical given the rapidly changing security situation in Afghanistan. It is influenced by both internal factors- religious extremism, sectarian and ethnic fault lines, and external factors, hostile intelligence agencies supporting terrorist organizations, and the destabilized security situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan has witnessed a surge in terrorist incidents from the start of 2021 and it is expected that this will increase till a tipping point is reached where the terrorists’ camps are eliminated and local support identified and curtailed.
Given the breakdown of the Afghan government and the disbandment of many parts of its army has created a weapons black market that will facilitate access to new weaponry that will also affect law and order in Pakistan.
Due to the vulnerability of camps and training facilitates in tribal areas, experts predict that TTP will endeavor to establish itself in different cities, especially, Karachi with the assistance of its sympathizers, sleeper cells, and in particular the sectarian organization- Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Pakistan must conduct its anti-terror campaign in a manner that does not antagonize the tribal communities and fuel secessionist movements such as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM). The focus on intelligence gathering and low-key operations will have to be a priority.
A close nexus has existed between Baloch militant organizations and the TTP for more than a decade due to the presence of Baloch and TTP terrorists along the Pak-Afghan border under the support of RAW and NDS. Quetta is the only metropolitan city in Balochistan and therefore the focus of all militant groups, as it affords useful targets for terror and the media publicizes these actions. Balochistan may witness more terrorist incidents like the recent suicide attack on the Serena Hotel, Quetta, claimed by TTP but executed with close cooperation and support to TTP by the Baloch militant organization.
Most Baloch militants returning from Afghanistan are likely to join their counterparts in Pakistan who operate from Ferrari (terror) Camps located within striking distance of the cities/towns like Margat, Marwar, Esplingi, and Kabul. In addition, the failure of the Pakistani Government to provide jobs to the people of South Balochistan will keep strengthening Baloch sub-Nationalist subversive themes and more youth will keep joining BLF. Thus, Southern Balochistan is likely to witness an increasing number of terrorist incidents. This Baloch militant organization is more active and destructive in conducting terrorist attacks against Chinese Nationals, Punjabi laborers, and security forces.
TTP Ameer Noor Wali Mehsud remained active in Karachi terrorist activities, so TTP will also endeavor to target Karachi with the support of Baloch separatist organizations. It will try to reestablish its foothold again in its conventional strongholds in tribal areas and the Swat region with the assistance of its sympathizers and sleeper cells.
Sectarian violence across Pakistan may increase due to TTP terrorists returning from Afghanistan and the presence of sectarian organizations ideological sympathizers. This nexus will try to increase attacks against the Shia community especially the Hazaras of Quetta and Barelvi/ Sufis.
After the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, TTA is presently in control of about half of Afghanistan’s district centers and threatening to increase control. Afghan provinces bordering Pakistan are coming under their control, thus depriving TTP and Baloch militants of their safe sanctuaries. Therefore, if military operations against TTP are not intensified in tribal regions and IBOs against Sectarian and Baloch militants in urban cities, they may establish footholds in Pakistan. The recent attacks in Peshawar and South Waziristan on a policeman and soldier, respectively, provide further evidence that Pakistan is facing severe impacts due to the instability in Afghanistan, and will continue to do so until and unless peace does not prevail in the region.