On Friday 18th September 2015, militants attacked a Pakistan Air Force base in Peshawar. In the ensuing battle, 13 militants were killed along with the 29 victims of the attack, many of whom were members of the Pakistani Air Force.[i]Attributed to the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), the attack represented the latest in a series of daring assaults on Pakistani military installations by militant groups operating either independently or under the broader ideological umbrella of the TTP.
…closer examination will show that there has been a growing feeling of betrayal and antagonism on the part of these (jihadi) groups against the Pakistani military…
In 2007-08, the situation was potentially far worse with the TTP being formed out of an alliance of about 40 groups under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud and threatened to overwhelm Pakistan itself.[ii]Since then, losing its first leader to a drone strike in August 2009, the TTP has fragmented into at least three factions – the TTP, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab (which has seemingly allied with the Pakistani state) and theJama’at-ut-Ahrar which had pledged support for Islamic State but indicated in March 2015 that it was rejoining the TTP.[iii]It should be noted that armed conflict has occurred with Central Asian militant groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan which joined the Islamic State (IS) movement along with the Jundallah, the Tehreek-e-Khliafat and the Jamaat-al-Ahrar. Fighters from outside Pakistan have aided the TTP and its affiliates on occasion.
While it may be possible to debate whether or not attacks are at the same intensity that they were in 2007-2008 or to debate the efficacy of TTP attacks and their ability to challenge the Pakistani armed forces, what is beyond debate is that terrorist attacks continue and the TTP and its affiliates and allies have continued to engage the Pakistani armed forces in a bruising series of low-level attacks.
Given the traditionally close relationship between the Pakistani armed forces and jihadist groups, their campaign of targeting the armed forces is seemingly inexplicable but closer examination will show that there has been a growing feeling of betrayal and antagonism on the part of these groups against the Pakistani military and a closer ideological alliance between these groups and the broader global jihadist movement. Indeed, recent IS linkage to some of the groups fighting in Pakistan gives credence to this.
For avoidance of any confusion, given the extent of military influence in Pakistani politics and governance circles, attacks on the armed forces disproportionately affect the nation’s stability. The question is why are these groups willing to attack the Pakistani armed forces knowing that the correlation of forces is heavily stacked against them? Indeed, it must be acknowledged that the Pakistani armed forces have waged a determined campaign against the TTP and its affiliates. While the Pakistani armed forces have shown no inclination to act against anti-India terrorist groups, they have had no such inhibitions against acting against groups operating against the Pakistani state.
…these groups and the various sectarian groups promoting conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims do not appear to have made the Pakistani armed forces primary targets for their efforts.
In from 2004 to the present date Pakistan has suffered horrendous casualties due to terrorist attacks with over 6,000 security personnel (with over 8500 wounded) and 20,000 civilians being killed.[iv]While there are claims to have killed 32,000 militants, verification of these numbers is difficult. Furthermore, over 3 million civilians have been internally displaced.[v] Note must be taken of the casualties suffered by the Pakistani security forces as well as the fact that terror attacks on their bases have targeted relatives of military personnel. These casualties are indicative of the effort and the determination that Pakistan has shown in its campaign against these militant group as well as being indicative of the tenacity of the said groups.
Pakistan’s military establishment and intelligence agencies have long supported militant/terrorist groups such as the Laskar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed as instruments of state policy against India. However, these groups and the various sectarian groups promoting conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims do not appear to have made the Pakistani armed forces primary targets for their efforts. Indeed, even the Balochistan liberation movement, which although conducting attacks of Pakistani military bases at Samugli and Khalid airbases in Quetta, has not conducted sustained attacks against the Pakistani armed forces nor engaged them in full scale combat.[vi] That honour goes to the TTP groups and affiliates in FATA.
For the purposes of this article, which focuses on those groups based in the FATA, particular notice should be taken of the very high casualties suffered by the security forces. These are astonishingly high numbers considering the disparity in forces and firepower that the militant groups face. Indeed, in the fighting against these militant group, the Pakistani armed forces have deployed every class of conventional weapon in their arsenal, with the use of artillery, armour and air power being widespread. In addition, the employment of US and Pakistani drones, some armed, have added to the vast array of weaponry deployed against the militants.
In examining the reasons that militant groups have for the targeting of the Pakistani armed forces, the following factors, in no order of priority inevitably come into focus. None are mutually exclusive but combined they have contributed to:
Despite inflicting thousands of casualties on the militants and displacing millions of civilians, the Pakistani military continues to bleed from attacks against its installations and personnel.
- Resentment of control by Islamabad of the FATA region.
- Ethnic tension between the tribal groups of the region and the Punjabi dominated Pakistani military and political hierarchy.
- The apparent betrayal of the Afghan Taliban by the Pakistani military.
- The logistical support extended to ISAF by Pakistan.
- The conduct of drone strikes by the US against targets in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
- Direct military operations against Pakistani groups operating against the International Security Assistance Force(ISAF)in Afghanistan.
The armed conflict between the Pakistani armed forces and these Taliban affiliated groups can be said to have begun in 2004 during the search for Taliban fighters by the Pakistani military in the FATA.[vii] The Pakistani central government’s control of these areas has never been particularly thorough and traditionally, these areas have been a safe-haven for groups operating across the border in Afghanistan.
Under increasing US pressure to act against these groups, who were attacking US targets in Afghanistan, the Pakistani armed forces initiated a series of military campaigns in FATA, especially in the Waziristan region. However, it was between 3-11 July 2007, when the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, with its congregation of pro-Taliban elements was besieged and stormed by Pakistani Police and Rangers that the conflict escalated with a fragile truce between the Pakistani government and the militants breaking down.[viii]This marked a beginning of a re-escalation in tensions and the resumption of a pattern of strike and counter-strike between the Pakistani military and the various militant groups operating ostensibly under the umbrella of the TTP and other militant groups.
Despite inflicting thousands of casualties on the militants and displacing millions of civilians, the Pakistani military continues to bleed from attacks against its installations and personnel. The militants, however, seem to have switched tactics and now instead of staging assaults on major military bases and open engagements with large detachments of Pakistani troops – as was the norm in 2007-2008 – they have resorted to attacking softer targets and more lightly defended compounds. The attack on the Peshawar air base it would be noted, targeted a mosque where unarmed airmen were at prayer.
Furthermore, there appears to have been a shift in tactics from quasi-conventional operations, which faltered in the face of overwhelming Pakistani firepower and are particularly vulnerable to air-attack, towards the more traditional types of insurgent attacks, maximizing the use of IEDs and hit-and–run strikes on security posts. This may have seemingly reduced casualties for the security forces, but there is a constant hemorrhaging of personnel, revenue and a diversion of military assets to combat these attacks.
…the population of the FATA is ethnically distinct from the Punjabi dominated Pakistani military, the people of the FATA increasingly saw the influx of Pakistani military might into the area as an attempt at subjugation.
When the Pakistani armed forces embarked upon their military campaign in the FATA in 2004, their actions were widely condemned within the area and suspected to have been done at the behest of the United States. Indeed, if one looked at the nature of military operations undertaken in FATA, they were aimed at Al-Qaeda and Taliban “foreign fighters”.
Starting with the Battle of Wana in March 2004, Pakistani forces sought to wrest control of a series of fortified settlements from a force of several hundred Al-Qaeda fighters.[ix]Rumours abounded that one of the fighters held there was the notorious Ayman-al-Zawahiri and efforts were made to capture or kill a “high-value target”. While this campaign resulted in an indecisive victory for the Pakistani armed forces, the escape of many foreign fighters and the ill-will created laid the foundation for the troubles ahead.
As Pashto speakers, the population of the FATA is ethnically distinct from the Punjabi dominated Pakistani military, the people of the FATA increasingly saw the influx of Pakistani military might into the area as an attempt at subjugation. These areas have long been restive and have resisted control by the Pakistani government in Islamabad. The 2001 replacement of the Frontier Corps with the regular army, ostensibly as a step to fight terrorism and the basing of US Special Operations just 6 km away at Afghanistan’s Shkin military base have created a lot of resentment and encouraged cross-border attacks.[x]
Mention must also be made of the level of force used by the Pakistani military in its operations against militants. These are not surgical counter-terror operations done by Special Forces and infantry. Combined arms operations with artillery, armour, air-mobility and air-strikes have been widely employed with the attendant sense of excessive force being utilized. Combined with a less than harmonious relationship with the local population, the seeds of deep resentment have been sown.
Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan expressed considerable solidarity with Afghan militant groups and gave succor and assistance to fleeing Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces.
Though Pakistan’s commitment to the “War on Terror” is questionable at best, there is no doubt that it has provided extensive logistical support to the US and ISAF troops operating in Afghanistan and has lent its territory to facilitate US drone strikes on Taliban targets. The undeniable fact is that whatever the protestations of the Pakistani government the US has conducted drone strikes with virtual impunity, decimating both the Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaderships.
Pakistan’s border areas with Afghanistan expressed considerable solidarity with Afghan militant groups and gave succor and assistance to fleeing Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces. Furthermore, local tribal militant groups allied with these entities to provide a network of armed fighters and support personnel to aid them in their fight against the US and ISAF. However, the influx of trained fighters, weapons and the proliferation of armed groups combined with the lack of effective control of the region by the Pakistani Government, inevitably led to armed resistance to Pakistani military operations in the area and the subsequent campaign by groups such as TTP directed against the Pakistani armed forces.
Mention must also be made of the fact that Pakistan’s logistical support to NATO forces in Afghanistan continued despite a NATO attack which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on 26 November 2011.[xi]
This was perceived as craven capitulation to US interests and diktats. Indeed it would have been inexplicable for almost any other country to continue such cooperation in those circumstances. In fact, the response to the incident by the Pakistani authorities was unusually muted despite some disruption to NATO supply lines. This reinforces the view of the militants that the Pakistani armed forces are acting as agents for or on behalf of US and NATO forces and their agenda in Afghanistan.
The conduct of such military operations by a foreign power further widens the distrust between the militants and the Pakistani establishment, confirming in their minds that attacking the Pakistani armed forces is the only way forward.
In addition to the logistical support extended to NATO, a particularly vicious sore point for the people of the FATA and one which gives support to militant groups operating against the Pakistani armed forces, is the issue of drone strikes against targets in Pakistan. A controversial subject even in the West, in all the US, in an attempt to kill select militants has killed thousands.
In Pakistan, at least 421 drone strikes have taken place killing between 2500 and 4000 people including at between 400 and 965 civilians including approximately 200 children.[xii] Furthermore, one must also be cognizant of the fact that many of the “militant” deaths are debatable and may refer to civilians in the vicinity of militants, thus further enhancing the civilian death toll.
The killing of Pakistani nationals by a foreign power does not find favour with a local population already reeling under the combined pressure of Pakistani military operations, militant groups and virtually stagnant development. The conduct of such military operations by a foreign power further widens the distrust between the militants and the Pakistani establishment, confirming in their minds that attacking the Pakistani armed forces is the only way forward. It has to also be categorically stated that there is no way that drones could operate with such impunity without the active connivance of the Pakistani armed forces.
Pakistan’s armed forces may continue to bleed but there seems to be no realistic danger of any dramatic collapse or change in fortunes.
Another factor which may be at play is the “defensive” element of the terror attacks against the Pakistani armed forces undertaken by the militant groups. Under severe military pressure from a superior force, these asymmetric attacks can keep the Pakistani military off-balance and deliver propaganda value far beyond the physical damage inflicted. This reasoning does open up another possibility – could these anti-Pakistan military jihadi groups attempt to carry out attacks on India in the hope that India’s response would distract the Pakistani military from its campaign against them. Such a scenario is fraught with the potential for misunderstanding and the exacerbation of a bad situation.
It has to be asked, however, what the militant groups hope to achieve. Despite exerting influence if not direct control, over several areas of Pakistan, these militant groups are not any closer to defeating the Pakistani armed forces and government or to achieving any discernable political objective. Pakistan’s armed forces may continue to bleed but there seems to be no realistic danger of any dramatic collapse or change in fortunes. Furthermore, given the enormous disparity of forces, they question arises as to how long can these militant groups keep up a sustained campaign against the Pakistani armed forces and state as it as yet unclear as to how they will obtain the wherewithal to do so.
Notes & References:
[vii]“[Pakistan Primer Pt. 1] The Rise of the Pakistani Taliban“, Global Bearings, 27 October 2011.