The extremist violence and militancy are changing; so are the state’s responses to these
n July 2007, Pakistan was making headlines around the world due to the situation at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad. I was in contact at that time with Sabir Mehsud, a prominent commander of the Tehreek-i-Taliban, through a public call office located in the Mir Ali market in North Waziristan. There were reports that some Taliban fighters from the Tribal Areas were present in the mosque. I believed Mehsud could help me contact them. Communication in the tribal region in those days was limited to telephones and satellite phones. (The use of satellite phones was abandoned later due to drone strikes.) Messages were typically exchanged through designated local messengers. The particular messenger would be given a message using the telephone and one waited for a call back.
It is hard today to imagine that way of communicating. The world of communication has undergone significant changes. Previously, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas were seen as lawless lands; this is no longer the case. Today, the internet is widely available and there are numerous apps used for communication. The nature of war, too, has evolved. As Prussian general, Carl Phillip Gottfried von Clausewitz, famously said, war may have its own grammar, but it does not have its own logic. The grammar of war in the region has changed over time.
After two decades of reporting on the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I believe that the current wave of terrorism is significantly different from the past. There are many ways in which the landscape of the war today differs from previous conflicts in the region. To fully understand these differences, it is necessary to examine the last four decades of conflict in the region and its outcomes.
The conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan began with the concept of jihad as resistance against foreign invaders - with the arrival of Russian forces in December 1977. The West referred to this as the Cold War, the KGB records in Russia referred to it as the Tournament of Shadows. The US and the West had no direct presence in Afghanistan. Instead, they used proxies, also referred to as shadows. The war eventually ended with the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by the US and its allies following the 9/11 attacks. It included a period of civil war and Taliban rule. The Taliban’s resistance against the “invasion” continued for twenty years - until August 2021. However, when the Taliban took control of Kabul and a suicide attack near the airport occurred under their watch, a new war got under way. This did not have the pretext of external aggression.
Despite the withdrawal of American and coalition forces and the completion of one year of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, there are no signs of peace. Targeting and killing of key Taliban leaders continues and there are daily terrorist attacks. This conflict has also spilled over into Pakistan. The goals of this new war in Afghanistan and Pakistan are unclear. However, it seems to be driven by internal differences and a campaign against terrorism rather than a war against external aggression. Dr Abida Bano, a faculty member at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Peshawar, says it is problematic to compare a war to terrorism in that while enemy combatants are targeted in a war, terrorist attacks mostly target innocent people. Also, wars are typically carried out by states and their forces, whereas terrorist networks are mostly non-state actors.
Numerous social media platforms and groups on Telegram and other applications connect and provide in-house training to the youth influenced by extremist militant ideologies.
The second major difference is the integration of the erstwhile FATA into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The FATA had served as a buffer zone between Central Asia and South Asia for over a hundred years. It was considered a no-go area by both the British rulers of India and Afghan kings. This allowed the question of Durand Line, a boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan, to remain unresolved. The FATA also had a role in anti-Russian, and later anti-American, movements. All this changed after the parliament amended the constitution to annex these areas and a military operation was conducted there.
These areas are now subject to all laws under the constitution and the century-old Frontier Crimes Regulations have been abolished. Regular police presence and courts are now being established in these areas. However, the infrastructure is weak and underdeveloped. This allows some militant training camps to exist.
The third difference is the motivations. The Taliban, fighting in the name of a strict shariah-based system in the region, reject parliamentary democracy. On the other hand, other schools of thought are open to parliamentary democracy. Forces like the Islamic State-Khorasan Province, which resist the Taliban in Afghanistan, contend that Afghanistan should be a part of a global caliphate and work towards the implementation of Islamic sharia at a global level. These groups and the Taliban are targeting Pakistan and other countries neighbouring Afghanistan. Recently, a suicide attack targeting the parliament in Islamabad failed.
The stated goal of Afghan Taliban stands achieved with the American withdrawal. They are now focused on enforcing Sharia laws within Afghanistan’s borders, as stated in the Doha Agreement. The religio-political parties in Pakistan believe that an Islamic constitution, in compliance with shariah, is already in place in the country. However, the militants belonging to the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan apparently believe that they can impose a strict shariah system in Pakistan by weakening the state institutions in the country through suicide attacks. The TTP enjoys the support of groups like the ISIS or ISKP as well as some factions in the Afghan Taliban.
The fourth difference is that the war has shifted from rural and mountainous areas to urban centres. After the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, there have been nearly as many attacks in the annexed FATA districts as in urban areas of Pakistan. Over the past 18 months, Peshawar, Charsadda, Mardan, Swabi, Nowshera, Bannu, Lakki Marwat, Kohat, Tank, Dera Ismail Khan, Swat, Dir and Kohistan have all seen terrorist attacks. This indicates that terrorists are shifting their focus from rural to urban areas.
The war has also shifted away from the traditional model. Previously, the war had required a shadow emirate, a relationship with an emir and a command and control structure, a designated coordinator, secure communication and a large number of facilitators. This is no longer the case. This shift maybe a result of an increase in the capacity of terrorist groups. There are now several people, each acting as a “lone wolf.” Extremist ideologies can be easily spread online and can inspire young individuals to engage in acts of terrorism. These individuals may also receive logistics support through online channels. Numerous social media platforms and groups on Telegram and other apps now connect and provide in-house training to the youth influenced by extremist ideology. During the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, there were physical training camps along the Afghanistan border in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Orakzai, Khyber, Mohmand and Bajaur. These centres provided various types of training to dozens of fighters at a time. Operations against these facilities were relatively straightforward and many were destroyed by US drone attacks.
Tracking militant activities has become harder due to the physical limitations of traditional methods. In recent arrests, interrogators have struggled to establish the connections between the apprehended militants and their support networks. The arrest of those directly involved in attacks no longer leads to broader networks and facilitators.
The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer