After 101 worshippers, most of them policemen, were killed in a suicide bombing at a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Jan. 30, experts speculated that Pakistan’s leaders might be on high alert. But several weeks later, it is business as usual in Islamabad.
Instead of treating increasing terrorist attacks as a national emergency, politicians are posturing for the next election. The military leadership is busy dealing with the challenge of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has galvanized support while criticizing the generals. To make matters worse, Pakistan is mired in an economic crisis: Its foreign reserves are at a nine-year low, inflation is at a 48-year high, and the Pakistani rupee lost 22 percent of its value last year. To avoid a default, Islamabad hopes to unlock another $1.1 billion in loans from the International Monetary Fund.
Pakistan’s political and economic troubles are intertwined with its inconsistent treatment of terrorists. For decades, Pakistan has allowed some terrorist groups to operate freely while cracking down on others. Militancy, and foreign sanctions resulting from terrorist financing, have in turn made it difficult for Pakistan to attract investment. Sympathy for jihadis among the public and within law enforcement and intelligence, along with inaction by members of the political class, has allowed domestic militant groups to operate with some impunity. Islamabad must change its tack if it hopes to prevent a full-blown insurgency and recover its global standing.
Islamist and sectarian groups first launched attacks inside Pakistan in the early 1990s, following the end of the Soviet-Afghan War. After the success of the Afghan mujahideen in driving out the Soviets—with U.S. support—Pakistan’s security services mobilized similar ideologically motivated groups to try to force India out of long-disputed Kashmir. Pakistani jihadists fought in the civil war in Afghanistan that followed the collapse of the Soviet-backed regime from 1992 to 1996, and later alongside the Taliban beginning in 2001. (Pakistan supported the Afghan Taliban regime in the 1990s.)
Islamist groups recruiting in Pakistan cited hadith—traditions and sayings attributed to the prophet Mohammed—that prophesied a great battle in the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan’s security services expected that radicalization through religion could help break the deadlock over Kashmir and empower Pakistan’s allies in Afghanistan. The strategy instead made Pakistan a battleground of competing interpretations of radical Islamist ideas. In the last 30 years, Pakistan has supported some jihadi groups and tolerated others, while also participating in the United States-led war against terrorism.
This juggling act has eroded Pakistan’s international standing and led some jihadi factions to target Pakistan’s military and security forces, occasionally inviting retaliation. When the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in 2021, Islamabad saw Kabul’s new regime as a potential close ally. After 2001, Pakistan continued to cultivate the Taliban as a counterweight to more liberal United States-backed factions; these were seen as too closely aligned with India. But during its second round in power the Afghan Taliban has proven to be less friendly than Islamabad expected, clashing with Pakistani border guards and publicly criticizing Pakistani policies toward Afghan refugees.
At the same time, Pakistan is facing violence from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an offshoot of the Afghan Taliban movement that is ideologically aligned with the Afghan branch but draws its leaders from within Pakistan. The TTP has claimed responsibility for many attacks in the latest spate of terrorism in Pakistan; a TTP splinter group said it had carried out the January mosque attack. The group seeks to overthrow Pakistan’s government and create an Islamic emirate. For years now it has waged war on the state, describing the conflict as the Ghazwa-e-Hind (Battle of India)—forecasted as a precursor to the end times by the Prophet Mohammed.
Pakistan’s security services and some politicians, including Khan, have advocated a nuanced approach to the TTP and other militant groups, suggesting the groups reflect Islamic aspirations that need not be seen as inimical to Pakistan. But events have repeatedly proven that compromise with armed and violent radical Islamist groups is impossible. Just as Afghanistan’s Taliban hard-liners explain their failure to moderate as a function of their faith, the TTP justifies its actions in the name of Islam and sharia. Factional competition over which group is more faithful to radical interpretations of Islam also plays a role in the militants’ intransigence.
Years of contradictory policies have undermined Pakistan’s ability to tackle the challenges posed by Islamist militancy. Former President Pervez Musharraf, who led Pakistan’s military government from 1999 to 2008, publicly admitted to cultivating and training Kashmiri militants and supporting armed proxies in Afghanistan. He also said terrorists such as Osama bin Laden were seen as heroes in Pakistan. Meanwhile, his government selectively cracked down on some militant groups, only to back off later.
Considering some militants as instruments of regional influence while fighting others has disastrous consequences: More than 8,000 members of Pakistan’s security forces have lost their lives in terrorist incidents since 2000. In 2014, the TTP attacked Peshawar’s Army Public School, killing 141 people, including 132 children of military officers and soldiers. The Jan. 30 attack targeted policemen. Both attacks appeared intended to demoralize the Pakistani military and law enforcement and to dissuade Pakistan’s leaders from going to battle with the TTP.
Meanwhile, domestic terrorism has adversely affected the country’s economy, which is now mired in crisis. Pakistan’s Ministry of Finance estimates the country has lost $123 billion in direct and indirect costs due to terrorism. Many foreigners no longer want to travel to Pakistan, which directly effects tourism and exports. Pakistan’s large troop presence along the Afghan border with Afghanistan, occasional military operations, and intelligence operations have all added to the defense budget. Falling foreign direct investment and foreign sanctions over terrorist financing and money laundering have also taken an economic toll.
Periodic negotiations between the Pakistani government and militant groups in recent years have only convinced the militants that the authorities lack the resolve for a sustained fight. Several peace deals and cease-fire agreements between Islamabad and the TTP have broken down. Last November, the TTP terminated the latest cease-fire, negotiated last June, and threatened new attacks across Pakistan in retaliation for the security service’s actions.
Pakistan would do better to abandon its “two steps forward, one step back” approach to domestic terrorism. Defining some jihadi groups as Pakistan’s allies in regional conflicts—against India’s control of Jammu and Kashmir, for example—has generated sympathy for militants, which helps even more extreme groups evade scrutiny even as they launch attacks against Pakistani citizens. This sympathy also aids the militant groups in recruitment, interferes with intelligence gathering, and forces the government to make more concessions during peace talks with the groups.
It is time that Pakistan’s leaders recognize that violent, radical Islamists are not just disgruntled individuals who can be placated with a negotiated settlement. They hold strong beliefs and a sense of destiny, and believe in using violence to shape the world according to their outlook. Before Pakistan’s militants take advantage of ongoing political chaos and economic adversity to orchestrate a full-blown insurgency, leaders in Islamabad must end years of uncertainty about their policy on terrorism. And before they can do that, the country needs a national consensus with the full support of its generals. Unfortunately, there is currently no sign that the country is moving in that direction.