Militancy in the region is different from what it was like earlier
he conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan has a long history, beginning with the concept of jihad as resistance against foreign invaders in the 1970s and continuing through the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the US and its allies following the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban resistance against this invasion lasted until 2021. However, a year and a third after the withdrawal of American and coalition forces and the revival of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, there are no signs of peace. The current wave of terrorism in the region is significantly different from the past. The nature of war has evolved with the widespread availability of the internet and the use of various apps for communication. It is important to understand the changes and differences in the region’s conflict over the past four decades in order to fully grasp the current situation.
The sixth way the war is different from what it was previously is on account of the fighters’ capability. Early on, most of the fighters were madrasa students or illiterate people. This is no longer the case. Global extremist ideologies and use of social media have won adherents among better skilled and educated youths, including professionals and university students. They are also harder to identify and monitor now that appearance stereotypes no longer hold. The suicide missionaries are no longer mere button pressers, they include some highly skilled and capable saboteurs.
The seventh difference is in the realm of communication and propaganda. In early days of jihad against Russian forces, video cassette recorders and journals were used to disseminate information. As the conflict continued, jihadi CDs became more prevalent in Peshawar and electronic images more common. While reporting from Dande, Darpa Khel and Mir Ali, I often listened to a cleric on the other side of the border in Khost who would abuse the jihadi clerics in North Waziristan. I also listened to Mullah Fazlullah’s FM radio in Swat, which became a popular way to spread propaganda, by the name Radio Shariah. In the Khyber district, the broadcast of Radio Khilafat could be heard for a while, but it has since stopped. CD releases have also ceased.
Cheaper and more advanced communication devices are widely available nowadays. Many computer and phone apps can create and send images, audio, video, or text from one place to another quickly and securely. Recently, some TTP fighters have even streamed live videos to their comrades in Afghanistan. Telegram channels are particularly popular among militants. Additionally, proxy social media sites and the dark web have become a hub for criminals and terrorists worldwide. The use of Bitcoin for financial transactions has also become more widespread. This has reduced the militants’ reliance on traditional methods like hawala and hundi.
In early days of jihad against Russian forces, video cassette recorders and journals were used to disseminate information.
The eighth difference is the use of modern weapons. This has surprised even the police and other law enforcement agencies. The region was introduced to the Kalashnikov rifle during the jihad against Russian forces. Since then, the militants have primarily used rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs or some variants of these weapons. I remember that Russian-made landmines were frequently used in Bajaur district. Later, we saw the use of Iranian-made landmines in the former tribal areas, particularly in Kurram and Hangu districts. Now, after the American withdrawal, some of the militants have come into possession of US and NATO arms reserves in Afghanistan.
According to a US Congress-mandated Defence Department report, by the time the last US transport aircraft left Afghan airspace on August 30, 2021, 70 percent of the weapons given to Afghan forces over the past 16 years had been left in the country, along with nearly $48 million worth of ammunition. According to the report, the United States left behind more than $7 billion worth of weapons and equipment when it withdrew from Afghanistan last year.
According to an arms dealer in Peshawar, a large quantity of American, Italian, German, and Iranian-made arms and ammunition have been illegally transferred to Pakistan from Afghanistan, leading to an abundance of weapons available at low prices. It is rumored that all kinds of modern weapon for ground warfare, with the exception of tanks, have been smuggled into Pakistan. This has left the police at a clear disadvantage in their fight against the militants.
The ninth difference is related to the development. After the 9/11 attacks, jihadis from all over the world came to the former tribal areas of Pakistan. Some of them later went to Afghanistan and then to Syria and Iraq, where they gained operational training in the Iraq and Syria wars. Of those, some have returned and brought their experience and expertise with them.
“Traditional wars are costly. Terrorists try to achieve their goals with limited resources. The Ukraine conflict is affecting the entire world. The developed world is not prepared to foot such costs. Terrorists and their resources go wherever they can serve a purpose. In present times, terrorism looks like a more affordable strategy than full-scale wars,” Dr. Abida Bano tells The News on Sunday.
Lastly, it is crucial for Pakistan to recognise and understand a tenth difference. Pakistan has been plagued by political turmoil. The political polarisation, extremism, hatred and division in the country must be eradicated. These serve only to fuel the fire of the new war. Unity and support of our security institutions are essential to fight and win this war.
The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer