Emergence of ISIS and financial constraints spell trouble in the coming days
Even after three years of an aggressive counterterrorism campaign, Pakistan’s militancy challenge has not gone away. While Pakistan’s recent counterterrorism efforts have reduced the number of suicide attacks in the country quite significantly, a multifaceted militant threat in the form of the Islamic State (ISIS) has grown exponentially during the last few years.
Before Pakistan Army launched a major counter-terrorism campaign in 2014, a majority of the country’s tribal areas abutting Afghanistan’s northeast served as a Taliban stronghold. At one point, in 2012, Taliban flags flew high as far as the Swat valley, which is just sixty miles from the country’s capital, Islamabad.
Pakistan military’s counterterrorism operations in the country’s tribal regions have pushed the Pakistani Taliban out of the country. Pakistani Taliban which, for almost ten years ran a state within a state in the country’s lawless tribal regions has established sanctuaries across the border in Afghanistan. Now, the Pakistani Taliban run their insurgency campaign from their bases in Afghanistan.
A massive deployment of troops and resources have not secured Pakistan’s porous border with Afghanistan which Taliban continue to cross almost unimpeded. Pacifying the largely lawless and mountainous border region which is spread across more than 2000 kilometers, would be difficult for any army. For quite some time, Pakistan Army has been fencing its largely porous border with Afghanistan and establishing new forts as well as outposts on mountain peaks.
While both groups compete in Afghanistan’s militant landscape, in Pakistan, ISIS and Taliban are coordinating closely to counteract the government’s counter-terrorism operations
Still, the country’s Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) remains vulnerable to cross-border terrorism. 2017 was the most violent year since the country launched its counter-terrorism operations in the tribal regions in 2014. Majority of the attacks that the Taliban carried out during the last year through cross-border infiltrations, were aimed at the country’s security agencies which remain heavily present in tribal districts.
While the Taliban have lost space, ISIS has established an active base in Pakistan. A few weeks ago, an ISIS flag carrying a message, “the caliphate is coming” was seen hoisted in Pakistan’s capital. Last year, ISIS carried out one of the deadliest suicide bombings in the country that killed hundreds of civilians. In Pakistan, ISIS has been making recruitments for the past two years with the militant group establishing networks all across Pakistan. The country’s law enforcement agencies recently busted a number of ISIS cells in various main Pakistani cities such as Karachi, Lahore, and Faisalabad.
Reportedly, various sectarian groups in Pakistan that also enjoy substantial support in society, have been forging alliances under the umbrella of ISIS and recruiting for the militant organization. The Chief of Pakistan Intelligence Bureau (IB) recently warned that sectarian groups in the country, such as the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) have a “soft corner” for ISIS which also shares their violent sectarian visions.
On the other hand, Pakistani Taliban and ISIS have made an alliance in Pakistan and are coordinating attacks in the country. Pakistan’s intelligence agencies recently warned that while both groups compete in Afghanistan’s militant landscape, in Pakistan, ISIS and Taliban are coordinating closely to counteract the government’s counter-terrorism operations.
A recent security report published by an Islamabad-based think-tank noted that ISIS is rapidly increasing its footprint in Pakistan. In this regard, the province of Baluchistan and northern Sindh have emerged as two major regions where the group is growing its concentration. A number of nationalist groups in Baluchistan that have waged an insurgency against the state are reportedly seeking an alliance with ISIS.
Northern Sindh which is adjacent to Baluchistan remains as lawless as the frontier regions of the country. Like many tribal regions of the country, it too is mired in choking poverty and underdevelopment. Sectarian and other militant groups have not only established sanctuaries in the northern districts of Sindh province but have also been spreading their radical ideology and recruiting new militants. During the past two years, Baluchistan and northern Sindh have remained at the receiving end of the ISIS-inspired militant attacks.
Moreover, the group is also inspiring and recruiting ideologically radicalized young people from the country. About two years ago, one of the brutal sectarian attacks in Karachi that resulted in the death of more than 50 people, was carried out by two university graduates that had pledged alliance with ISIS. A few days ago, an investigative report revealed that a large number of terrorist networks that have recently been busted in connection with ISIS in the country were being run or managed by highly educated individuals that had gone to the country’s top universities and were radicalized there.
Seemingly, Pakistan doesn’t have the capacity to launch military operations in areas where ISIS is growing its physical presence, for the country’s military is already stretched in the tribal regions
Seemingly, Pakistan doesn’t have the capacity to launch military operations in areas where ISIS is growing its physical presence, for the country’s military is already stretched in the tribal regions. Moreover, an operation against sectarian groups can have a strong blowback effect. Sectarian groups enjoy mass public support due to their ideological leanings and are likely to find a lot of support among people in case of a military operation being launched against them.
Pakistan’s militancy challenge is increasing at a time when the country faces a growing international economic and diplomatic isolation. The United States recently cut Pakistan’s complete military aid which the latter heavily relies on to support its costly counterterrorism operations. On the other hand, the aid cut is certainly going to hamper Pakistan’s efforts to fence its border with Afghanistan, for the costs in this regard are in billions of dollars. Moreover, financial handicaps won’t help the country’s Army when it comes to expanding the counter-terrorism operations beyond the tribal regions.
These complex realities indicate that Pakistan’s counterterrorism challenge is far from over.