Thursday September 16, 2021

Lest we forget

September 13, 2021

As the Taliban flag once again flutters across Afghanistan, there is natural worry in Pakistan regarding the potential impact here of the latest turn of events in the neighbouring country. When the Afghan Taliban began their lightning takeover of the country in July, Afghanistan-based Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan chief Noorwali Mehsud was reported to have told CNN that the group was committed to establishing its own Taliban-styled state in the border areas of Pakistan by force.

While the TTP is not even a shadow of its former self in terms of men and material, as well as potential reach into the Pakistani heartland, a recent UN report estimates that the group maintains a force of several thousand fighters in the bordering areas of Afghanistan. And then there is the issue of other outfits sharing their violent extremist ideology, most notably IS-Khorasan which is based in the Pak-Afghan border region and which, too, has carried out several terrorist attacks inside Pakistan in recent years.

With the withdrawal of US forces and formation of a Taliban government in Afghanistan, security circles here have been expecting the emboldening of the TTP, which draws inspirational strength from the Afghan Taliban. Already this year, dozens of armed forces personnel have been killed in terrorist attacks across the country, mostly in the remote regions of Balochistan and erstwhile tribal areas, with a number of the attacks having been claimed by the TTP. There have also been limited high-profile attacks this year, including suicide bombings, on foreigners and key state installations that have been blamed directly on ‘hostile foreign agencies and local elements’.

More worryingly, the TTP recently issued a warning to the country’s media to refrain from referring to it as a banned terrorist organisation or risk being considered the ‘enemy’. The group used to issue similar threats to journalists, and acted on some too, while waging war against the state from 2007 onwards – a war that cost us tens of thousands of lives, including one of the country’s most popular political leaders and two-time PM.

These recent developments bring back horrid memories of what the nation went through in the last decade-and-a-half, when our social fabric was ripped apart at the seams. With nearly every day bringing reports of deadly terrorist attacks on both military and civilian targets, including schools, hospitals and shopping centres, an entire generation grew up brutalised and under fear as schools began to resemble fortresses and TV screens flashed blood-soaked streets.

Having successfully turned the tide in recent years, albeit at a very dear and heavy cost, it is natural to move on and forget how we got here. We have paid immensely with the sacrifices of our soldiers and the lives of ordinary Pakistanis in rooting out terrorism and eliminating militant safe havens. Following the ghastly massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar in 2014, the ensuing National Action Plan spelt out all the right things in terms of rooting out extremism and eliminating terrorism. Unfortunately, the plan remains vastly unfulfilled as the country moved on to business as usual with the improved security situation.

But it would be a grave mistake to take our present peace for granted, especially in light of the recent regional developments, for even though we may have denied operational space to terrorists on our side of the border, an ungoverned Afghanistan presents groups such as the TTP and IS-K the mobility they need to wreak havoc inside Pakistan. And with hostile foreign agencies on the lookout to hurt us, such groups provide a key ingredient.

With the world seemingly abandoning the region, our international leverage too will subside, leaving us primarily on our own. Any more high-profile attacks, like the recent one on Chinese engineers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, or such as those on the Sri Lankan cricket team, or the Nanga Parbat mountaineers years before, run the risk of alienating our few allies and isolating the country internationally.

In this regard, the recent top-level huddle of the civil-military leadership is a much welcome development. Unfortunately, such meetings and their accompanying promises have been witnessed for years now, with little to no follow-up. It is time to ask uncomfortable questions – and demand answers – regarding the failure of implementing NAP over successive governments, as well as the much-hailed and now near-defunct NACTA that was presented as the best way to combat terrorism. After the APS massacre, the entire country stood united and vowed to ‘never forget’. I am not sure we have kept that promise.

The writer is a freelance journalist. He tweets @abbasbilal