Pakistan’s Militancy Conundrum

By: Nicole Magney, Columnist

Photo Credit: Dawn News

The Pakistani state’s relationship with terrorism is convoluted and, ultimately, self-defeating. Militant groups that are viewed by elements of the Pakistani government as aligning with state interests, like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Haqqani Network, are offered complicity or support, while other groups are condemned and targeted, like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). By providing tacit approval for or support to some groups, Pakistan opens the door for militant groups like TTP to gain popular support and influence. Therefore, the state’s support and offer of save haven to groups operating in Kashmir, India, and Afghanistan invites instability within Pakistan’s own borders as well. In an effort to crack down on terrorists operating out of the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the state launched a military counteroffensive in 2014 and put new policies into place in 2015, such as the twenty-point National Action Plan that addresses terrorism issues specifically. These relatively new measures have met with some success. However, this success will have a limited long-term impact unless the state makes more concerted efforts to tackle the underlying issues that fuel terrorist violence.

Pakistan’s strategic use of certain militants and condemnation of others constitute what S. Paul Kapur and Sumit Ganguly call a “jihad paradox.”[i] The state supports or tolerates militancy only when it advances Pakistan’s interests to do so, but does not support militancy that directly attacks the state. Elements of the Pakistani government, like its military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), have historically provided extensive support, resources, and training to members of LeT and other anti-India terrorist groups to promote attacks against the Indian military in Kashmir and some targets in India proper.[ii]

The state’s complicity extends beyond anti-India groups to other militants operating in Pakistan’s frontier border region, as well as Afghanistan. The suspected cooperation between elements of the state’s intelligence and military bodies and particular groups has “exacerbated the already profound concerns about Islamabad’s weak control over” these frontier areas, mainly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Northwestern Pakistan.[iii] Although officially outlawed by Pakistan in 2015, the Haqqani Network—based in FATA’s North Waziristan province—allegedly has connections to the ISI and uses Pakistan as a base for launching attacks against US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.[iv]

From Pakistan’s perspective, relationships with select militant groups can be advantageous. For example, elements of the state have historically maintained connections with LeT under the belief that the group’s attacks on Indian targets impose a cost on India without prompting a major conventional military response. In addition, Pakistan can maintain a certain level of plausible deniability regarding the group’s actions, although this became more difficult following LeT’s multiple attacks on civilian targets in Mumbai in 2008. Similarly, providing safe haven or support to particular militant groups along the Afghanistan border grants Pakistan some leverage in its relationship with the United States, upon which Pakistan depends heavily for military and counterterrorism aid. By ensuring that a militancy problem that threatens US interests continues to exist in the border region, Pakistan maintains justification for further US support.

In spite of these perceived advantages, in recent years the Pakistani state has grown increasingly wary of the internal threat posed by TTP, sometimes referred to as the Pakistani Taliban. TTP, established in 2007 as a loose affiliate of tribal militant groups in FATA, has largely focused its attention on attacking the Pakistani state, although the group has occasionally expressed solidarity with more globally minded groups like al-Qa’ida and maintains strong connections to the Afghan Taliban.[v] The web of terrorist networks operating in FATA and across the border in Afghanistan is complex; therefore, the state’s overt or tacit support of some militants inadvertently encourages and empowers groups that focus their efforts domestically as well.

In recent years, Pakistan has recognized the serious threat that TTP and similar groups operating in FATA pose to its stability and has made policy and military efforts to prevent the growth of “rogue states within a state.”[vi] On December 16, 2014, TTP gunmen entered an Army public school in Peshawar, Pakistan and killed 144 people, mostly young students. This attack prompted Pakistan to enact a National Action Plan (NAP) in January 2015 to address terrorism more specifically. While an encouraging step towards addressing internal militant threats, the twenty-point NAP is vague and sweeping, offering limited value beyond rhetoric.[vii]

What has proved more impactful than the NAP is Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a Pakistani military offensive launched in 2014 to root out TTP and other militants in FATA. This massive operation evidences Pakistan’s recognition that militancy poses one of the most imminent threats to Pakistani security.[viii] The operation has proved somewhat successful in eliminating the presence of TTP militants in FATA; data indicates that the number of terrorist attacks in FATA in 2016 decreased by forty percent in comparison to 2015.[ix] From 2014 to 2015, attacks in FATA decreased thirty-six percent.[x] These short-term, tangible gains—including killing and arresting militants and foiling terrorist plots[xi]—should not be ignored. However, the gains also should not be overstated, considering the likelihood that militants have fled the area into neighboring provinces in Pakistan and Afghanistan and could return in the future or increase instability in other parts of Pakistan.

The policy and military initiatives outlined above, coupled with decreasing levels of violence in both FATA and the country writ large from 2014 to 2016, would suggest an increase in stability. However, these endeavors fall short of addressing the root causes of militancy and terrorism in Pakistan and, as such, only signify short-term gains. Although the total number of terrorist attacks in Pakistan declined by twenty-nine percent in 2016 from the previous year, fatality data indicates that these attacks were deadlier on average than the preceding year.[xii] In addition, the number of people killed in attacks in 2016 by the Taliban or ideologically similar groups increased ten percent from the previous year. This trend of fewer, yet deadlier attacks carried out by TTP or similarly motivated militants signifies that militants may be increasing their operational capabilities in spite of Pakistani military and policy efforts.

Within the first three months of 2017 alone, terrorist attacks in Pakistan killed roughly 337 people and injured 552 more, indicating that, while overall violence levels are declining, Pakistan’s militancy problem is far from solved.[xiii] The Pakistani government continues to sustain ties to Afghan militant groups, like the Taliban and Haqqani Network, in addition to anti-India groups like LeT.[xiv] This convoluted policy regarding terrorism will remain a destabilizing factor for the country until the state fully addresses its militancy problem through a combination of more targeted and aggressive military operations and specific, impactful policies.

[i] S. Paul Kapur and Sumit Ganguly, “The Jihad Paradox: Pakistan and Islamist Militancy in South Asia,” International Security 37, no. 1 (Summer 2012): 111.

[ii] Ibid., 128.

[iii] Mahin Karim, “Mapping Pakistan’s Internal Dynamics: Implications for State Stability and Regional Security” in Mapping Pakistan’s Internal Dynamics, ed. Mumtaz Ahmad et al. (Seattle, WA: National Bureau of Asian Research, February 2016), 2.

[iv] “Haqqani Network,” Stanford University Mapping Militant Organizations, last updated May 15, 2015, accessed March 7, 2017,

[v] Karim, “Mapping Pakistan’s Internal Dynamics,” 3.

[vi] Ibid., 3.

[vii] “Twenty Points of National Action Plan,” National Counterterrorism Authority Pakistan, accessed March 7, 2017,

[viii] Mumtaz Ahmad, “Mapping Pakistan’s Political Superstructure” in Mapping Pakistan’s Internal Dynamics: Implications for State Stability and Regional Security, ed. Mumtaz Ahmad et al. (Seattle, WA: National Bureau of Asian Research, February 2016), 12.

[ix] “2016 Pakistan Security Report,” Pak Institute for Peace Studies (Spring 2017), 17.

[x] “2015 Pakistan Security Report,” Pak Institute for Peace Studies (Spring 2016), 9.

[xi] “Digital Database on Conflict and Security,” Pak Institute for Peace Studies (2016).

[xii] “2016 Pakistan Security Report,” Pak Institute for Peace Studies (Spring 2017), 13.

[xiii] “Major Incidents of Terrorism-related Violence in Pakistan – 2017,” South Asia Terrorism Portal, last updated February 26, 2017, accessed March 7, 2017,

[xiv] Aryaman Bhatnagar and C. Raja Mohan,India-Pakistan Relations and Regional Stability” in Mapping Pakistan’s Internal Dynamics, ed. Mumtaz Ahmad et al. (Seattle, WA: National Bureau of Asian Research, February 2016), 88.

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