FOLLOWING last month’s terror blasts in KP, a police officer’s tears flowed at the funeral of his lost comrades. One can only imagine the strain of facing colleagues and bereaved families as they endure the constant threat of terrorist assaults. Primarily in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the less-equipped and undertrained police force has valiantly battled terrorists for two decades, suffering severe losses. The Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan briefly ignited hopes of peace. Yet, the stark reality is a brutal surge in violence, with policemen now directly in the line of fire.
Although the police are a prime target, other law-enforcement agencies have also suffered casualties in terrorist attacks and during counterterrorism operations. Since the Afghan Taliban takeover in August 2021, the outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and similar groups have attacked security forces 368 times, resulting in the death of 652 personnel and 1,049 injured. According to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies’ database, police have incurred significant casualties, with 244 deaths, while the military has lost 101 personnel, Levies 55, and FC 29. Since 2001, when the terrorism threat escalated in the country, 2,100 police personnel have been killed and 7,000 injured.
Despite the risk to life and limb, the police force’s morale remains high. One example is a policeman who chased and attempted to stop a suicide bomber targeting a mosque in Khyber recently, saving numerous lives. However, a question raised by policemen and their families is why they are the primary targets of terrorists.
Several theories and explanations exist, including the belief that the police are a soft target because they lack the training to combat militants or conduct counterterrorism operations effectively. The KP Police argue that they have successfully prevented militants from infiltrating the country’s heartland. While a combination of factors may be at play, the TTP contends that the police pose a significant obstacle to their plan of targeting the army and have warned the force multiple times to disassociate itself from the military.
The TTP’s attacks on the police are part of a scheme to propel the military towards the cities.
The TTP’s justification for attacking the police force appears to be a strategy to erode trust among law-enforcement agencies. Data shows that most attacks occur at police stations in or near urban centres, far from military installations. This strategy suggests their capability to spread the conflict beyond borders, thereby supporting the Taliban’s claim that the TTP operates within Pakistan, and not from safe havens inside Afghanistan.
Pakistan has formally protested, urging the Taliban to stop the TTP from attacking the country, but Kabul has yet to acknowledge this publicly. International watchdogs and organisations, including a United Nations Security Council monitoring committee, support Pakistan’s assertion that the TTP seeks to regain control in Pakistan’s former tribal areas. The UN report explains how the TTP has gained momentum in Afghanistan since the Afghan Taliban’s takeover two years ago and how other terrorist groups operate under its cover.
The TTP’s attacks on the police are part of a broader scheme to demoralise them, reduce their resistance, and propel the military towards the cities. The TTP understands that the military isn’t ideally fit to handle police duties, potentially triggering public resentment. They tested this strategy in Swat and observed similar outcomes in the tribal district after the Fata merger. The Taliban used a comparable strategy in Afghanistan, enabling them to seize cities and establish shadow governments. Creating divisions within the law-enforcement agencies and between security forces and the public is a dangerous tactic.
The TTP and its affiliate groups are extending their influence to Balochistan districts near Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, southern Punjab, and northern Sindh — regions that form the country’s backbone — by connecting all provinces and major transport lines. If the TTP successfully establishes terrorist bases and allies with Baloch sub-nationalist groups in these areas, it could compromise Pakistan’s internal security, including CPEC.
The TTP has been modelling itself on the Afghan Taliban, including establishing a presence in Balochistan. The Afghan Taliban’s presence dates back to 1996, while the TTP only emerged in 2007 and initially showed no interest in Balochistan. Over time, as it solidified its power in former Fata, the TTP created its Balochistan chapter, known as Tehreek-i-Taliban Balochistan. The TTP has also expanded its outreach into Punjab, including the outskirts of Islamabad. This highlights the TTP’s increasing reach across vital regions within Pakistan.
Underestimating the threats posed by terrorism only aids the terrorists. The ideological strength of these groups, bolstered by an extensive network of religious madressahs and groups, should not be underestimated, as the TTP can exploit the religious and ideological paradigm of the religious institutions. The TTP can inspire the graduates of religious institutions through its narrative and portray counter-offensives by law-enforcement agencies as oppressive.
Religiously motivated terrorist groups are good at cultivating narratives and developing their arguments. The TTP and the Islamic State-Khorasan group are competing in this domain, but both share common objectives when it comes to the Pakistani state. The state mostly focuses on kinetic measures, and even if it creates a message to counter the terrorists’ propaganda, it cannot inject this into people’s minds as narratives need a conducive political environment to grow. Another challenge the police face is their public image; neither the state nor the department has paid the needed attention to it.
In any case, police are a key component in countering the terrorism threat, requiring strengthening and adequate intelligence support. This enables them to maintain the safety of cities and free up the army and paramilitary forces to deal more effectively with border threats.
Counterterrorism departments exist in every province, but the ones in KP grapple with several issues, such as tenure security, capacity, training and budgetary constraints. Crucially, faith in the police and CTDs from superior security institutions and civilian governments is indispensable.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2023